By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
When real estate developer Charles K. Landis founded Sea Isle City in 1882, he envisioned it as a shore resort inspired by the grandeur of Venice, Italy.
The town’s Old Country influences continued in the early 1900s when Italian immigrants, heading to the Jersey Shore for economic opportunity, helped establish the family-owned restaurants and commercial fishing operations in Sea Isle’s historic Fish Alley neighborhood.
Sea Isle took time to honor its rich Italian heritage Saturday with a colorful parade that made its way down JFK Boulevard, then through downtown’s Landis Avenue corridor and ended with a celebration at the bar and nightclub owned by the city’s Italian-American mayor, Leonard Desiderio.
“Today, everyone is Italian,” Desiderio said with a smile as he waved to the crowds lining the sidewalks while he marched in the parade. “On St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish.”
Parades, the mayor said, are a source of civic pride and tend to bring the entire community together in one, big celebration.
Desiderio and his family decided to sponsor the Columbus Day Parade after they organized Sea Isle’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade 30 years ago.
“This is the 30th year for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. It was such a huge success that we decided to do a Columbus Day Parade,” Desiderio said.
Now in its 29th year, the Columbus Day parade proceeded in grand style Saturday afternoon through the center of town amid the blare of sirens from Sea Isle police cars and fire trucks and the rhythm of the Ocean City High School Marching Band.
Marchers joined with local veterans and members of Boy Scout Troop 76 of Sea Isle to carry the American and Italian flags. The parade also included representatives of the Italian-American Club and the Knights of Columbus Madonna Maria Council.
Netta Otto, corresponding secretary for the Italian-American Club, waved a small Italian flag while sitting in a pickup truck that was part of the procession. She has participated in the parade for about 10 years.
“I love it. I just love everything about it,” Otto said. “I especially love giving candy to the kids.”
One of the parade’s most popular traditions is for marchers to throw candy to the spectators, particularly the children.
On Saturday, James Blumenstein, 5, along with his 3-year-old sister, Eleanora, and 3-year-old brother, Jackson, and 2-year-old Marco Cammarota scrambled for candy that landed in front of them on the sidewalk.
Their fathers, Jim Blumenstein, of Audubon, N.J., and Chase Cammarota, of Babylon, N.Y., watched in amusement as the kids zeroed in on the chocolate candy and other goodies.
“This is good because you get some candy,” Jackson exclaimed while holding a Tootsie Roll treat.
Eleanora said her favorite part of the parade was the fire truck.
Jim Blumenstein and Chase Cammarota both agreed that the parade adds to Sea Isle’s lineup of family-friendly entertainment. They were spending time with their children at a playground at the city’s Dealy Field recreation complex before heading over to see the parade, attracted by the sound of drums from the marching band.
Traditionally, Sea Isle’s parade is held on Columbus Day weekend, but it was moved ahead one week earlier this year and made the centerpiece of an Italian Day celebration that culminated at Desiderio’s Kix-McNutley’s bar and entertainment complex on 63rd Street.
The Italian Day festival featured food, opera singing, a cannoli eating contest and vendors.
Desiderio said the decision was made to hold the parade a week earlier this year to avoid competing with other major tourist events on Columbus Day weekend, including the Fall Block Party in Ocean City and Oktoberfest celebrations at the shore.
The parade is one of the attractions that Sea Isle offers to draw visitors to town during the quieter off-season months, particularly when the weather remains mild.
“It’s something that prolongs the season. If we have nice weather, we can do anything. Everyone loves a parade. They’ve all got smiles on their faces,” Desiderio said as he looked at the spectators.