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“Even when I was away, I always had a home in Monterey,” says Joe Cardinalli, 74. The Monterey native returned to his hometown in 2006, then ran special events at CSUMB before retiring and becoming president of the Festa Italia Foundation.

Joe Cardinalli has always been into special events. Initially interested in music and theater, over his career Cardinalli learned he is good at making things happen, from designing a set for a historical play to physically moving a building from one place to another.

Born and raised in Monterey, Cardinalli soon realized what he wanted to do was to facilitate entertainment for people. After attending Monterey Peninsula College (where he earned an associate’s degree in arts and theater), he obtained a master’s from San Jose State University (in theater arts and related technologies). By then, he had already become pretty well versed in theater design.

Cardinalli was “very lucky,” he says, to be hired by a company in Santa Clara that eventually became Atari. Before settling back in Monterey in 2006, Cardinalli worked for the city of San Jose for 32 years, eventually becoming the deputy director administrative services and overseeing a number of projects, from Christmas in the Park to the renovation of the San Jose Historical Museum.

Cardinalli “retired” and moved back to the Monterey Peninsula, only to spend another 15 years as executive and artistic director for performances and special events for CSU Monterey Bay. He was in charge of the campus’ World Theater, which pre-pandemic, hosted regular touring shows.

Currently, Cardinalli’s main responsibility is serving as president of the Festa Italia Foundation, a nonprofit whose purpose is to support the long tradition of cultivating Sicilian traditions through the annual Festa Italia event. (For more about the September event, visit festaitaliamonterey.org.)

It started locally in 1933. The event is nothing more and nothing less than the annual blessing of the fleet by Santa Rosalia. This year, Cardinalli helmed another successful Festa and has already started planning next year’s event. When asked why he keeps himself so busy, he says: “I don’t consider this work.”

Weekly: Can you describe the fun of old Monterey you witnessed as a child?

Cardinalli: I spent my childhood around the Fairgrounds and the Youth Center. I remember fireworks at the beach on the Fourth of July and bands playing all weekend. As a child, I wouldn’t go to Festa, but I remember that there was a parade. As a kid you don’t pay attention, you just have a good time.

I was a Boy Scout. We were always out in nature. My mother would let us run as far as the harbor. But I remember seeing accordion bands, and joining the marching band when I was 8. My first parade was maybe in 1948; I was marching with 40 other accordion players. [He dropped accordion at 12, because of rock ‘n’ roll.] I blame the Beatles.

You said that as a child, you didn’t attend Festa. Now you’re deeply connected to it. Are you Italian?

Full-blood Sicilian. My grandparents came from Isula dî Fìmmini in northwestern Sicily – Palermo – and were in Pittsburgh before they came to California. Dad has six brothers and six sisters.

Can you prove it with a legit Italian food memory?

Aww, Mother was a great cook. I remember Sunday mornings in my bedroom when I could smell the tomato sauce as early as 5-6am. Her meatballs were really soft. And her gnocchi. And our pizza was a square pizza, not like pizza today. And our cannoli – we didn’t like them with fruit so Mother would put chocolate chips inside.

Verified. So why did you return to Monterey?

I’ve always wanted to come back to this area, which has been so good to me.

Tell us about Festa.

We had a two-year hiatus, but we were back in September 2022. It’s a three-day event, a really fun three days. There’s entertainment all day long, local bands, bocce tournaments, Italian food. It’s a place to be on that weekend, have a slice of pizza, have cannoli. The entertainment is all free.

Who was Santa Rosalia?

She is the patron saint of Palermo and the patron saint of Sicilian fishermen. She was born in the 11th century in Palermo and gave her life to God. The statue of Santa Rosalia is being used in the procession before blessing the fleet. We continue to do that today – after we raise the Sicilian flag, we march to the end of the wharf and we bless the fleet.

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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