South Jersey–Italian Since the Civil War and Host to America’s Longest Running Italian Festival

South Jersey looks a lot like rural North Carolina farm country. I know it’s not, though, because instead of shack-like stores on the side of the two-lane roads selling barbecue, they sell ravioli. Instead of large crosses and “Thank you, Jesus” signs, there are monuments to Padre Pio. It is otherworldly to me, a parallel universe where the Italians took over the Heartland of America. I mean, what says it more than the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a John Deere?

Hammonton, New Jersey, was settled by Italian immigrants during the American Civil War. The community was started by one Sicilian immigrant who encouraged others to come. They did, establishing farms, and their descendants now grow Jersey’s famed tomatoes, blueberries and peaches. Each July, Hammonton also hosts the longest running Italian festival in the U.S., the Our Lady of Mount Carmel festival that celebrates the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on July 16. In its 143rd year, the festival runs from July 9-16. There’s plenty of Italian food, and this is probably the one place in America where you can get broccoli rabe added to your sandwich.

The highlight for me is the procession of the statues in front of Saint Joseph’s Church.

If you donate a dollar, you get a prayer card of the saint that is passing by.

If you travel to the area, don’t forget to visit Penza’s Pies for blueberry pie or Bagliani’s Italian Market for Italian products.

–Dina Di Maio, author of Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People

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