The first Italian Festival in McAlester was held in 1971. It was the idea of Krebs restaurant owner Bill Prichard. He and his family have operated the "world famous" Pete's Place in Krebs for nearly 60 years. The festival was to honor and prolong the Italian heritage in this area of Oklahoma.
The first four years, the festival was held around Columbus Day in McAlester Chadick Park. Food was prepared in the homes of the area residents and brought to the site for the one-day festival. In 1975, the festival became a two-day affair on Labor Day Weekend, and in 1977, it moved to Memorial Day Weekend, in 2011 it will be held on May 21nd and 22rd. The festival was held for several years on a site commonly known as Schiller's Field, on the east side of U.S. 69 By-Pass, just south of the cloverleaf intersection with U.S. 270. In 1987, the festival moved to the new county fairgrounds (Pittsburg County Regional Exposition Center), just west of McAlester (on the south side of U.S. 270).
The festival has grown into one of the largest festivals in the state, and features one of the largest arts and crafts shows in Oklahoma, as well as the delicious and freshly-prepared Italian food and tributes to Italian heritage. All the labor for the restival comes from volunteers. During the two-day event some twenty thousand people visit and enjoy, or take part in the festivities, which makes the efforts of the hundreds of volunteers all worthwhile.
Many Italians came from Italy, through the Ellis Island point of entry in New York, to find honest, but hard, work in the often dangerous) coal mines. As the new immigrants achieved and overcame the obstacles in their new country, some saved up enough money to bring family from Italy to join them in Oklahoma. At that time McAlester was in Indian Territory, in the part controlled by the Choctaw Nation (one of the American Indian tribes commonly referred to as "The Five Civilized Tribes") - Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory were joined to create the brand-new State of Oklahoma in 1907. The Italian community in the McAlester area flourished and thrived and grew over the years. As the mines began to play out, the Italians in this area went into other trades and businesses, including the establishment of some of the finest Italian restaurants in America. Other nationalities were also represented in the immigrant tide that built up this regaion - notably Greeks and Russians in significant numbers. However, it was the Italians who marked this part of Oklahoma most indelibly and wonderfully - and that is the glorious heritage which we celebrate with The Italian Festival of McAlester.
The festival was begun and operated by a special committee of the McAlester Chamber of Commerce & Agriculture for many years, and is now operated by the McAlester Italian Festival Foundation, Inc. - a not-for-profit, charitable foundation. Money raised by the festival is contributed to various community public efforts and charities.