This weekend, the municipal government keeps the spirit alive.
Officials spent last week planning a special Columbus Day celebration for Saturday, Oct. 8. The event is a collaboration between Mayor Dennis Elwell, the Town Council, and Secaucus UNICO (Unity, Neighborliness, Integrity, Charity, and Opportunity), an Italian-American service organization.
Among the festivities planned was a luncheon to honor Nick Salvemini, a Secaucus resident who moved here from Hoboken with his wife, Lena, in 1959.
"[Lena] lived around the corner from me in Hoboken," Salvemini said last week. "She snagged me when I wasn't looking."
Salvemini had a deli on Center Street in Secaucus for 30 years. He said he was the first business owner to introduce Italian products and homemade goods to the town.
"I had to go over to Hoboken to get Italian. I always wanted to own a place, so I opened my own," he said. "Most of the stuff around town I introduced."
He said he made his own mozzarella, and his specialty was stuffed red cherry peppers.
Salvemini said his deli business was so good that he had to close the gas station he owned in Rutherford. "I had everything - prosciutto, hard salami, gourmet products - good bread. You couldn't get a decent loaf of bread here then," Salvemini said. "Before the Acme [food store came to Secaucus], there was no Italian products. The business took off right away. I couldn't even handle it."
Salvemini's father, Mauro, had come to Hoboken in 1920 from Molfetta, in the Bari province of southern Italy. Salvemini's father-in-law, Tony Romano, came from Monte San Giacomo in the province of Salerno, also in southern Italy.
Salvemini and his wife have two daughters, Camille and Toni. The couple will have been married 50 years next April.
Salvemini enlisted the help of his daughters, along with his father-in-law Tony and eventually the grandchildren, in running the deli. Camille, who worked there for 29 years, became a private chef after the store closed two years ago. Salvemini now works part-time as a medical escort driver for the town.
"Everybody worked in the store. They went through college - everybody who was related worked there," said Lena Salvemini.
For Saturday, officials planned a flag-raising ceremony at the Columbus Memorial in front of Marra's Drug Store on Paterson Plank Rd. at 11 a.m. A luncheon to honor the Italian Citizen of the Year, Nick Salvemini, was slated for 12 p.m. at La Reggia's restaurant on Wood Street off of Meadowlands Parkway.
"The theory behind all this is to institute an ongoing appreciation of cultural heritage in Secaucus," said Town Administrator Anthony Iacono. "We'll be doing something for each holiday or significant celebration day. Like St. Patrick's Day and such."
Secaucus UNICO President Peter Wiener said, "We're hoping to get people interested in celebrating Columbus Day again. It used to be a big deal, but has waned over the years."
Winners of the UNICO poster and essay contest will also be announced at the event. The judges will select posters of Christopher Columbus done by first-to-third graders in district schools. Older kids, from fourth to sixth grades, instead entered the essay contest on "What Christopher Columbus means to me."
UNICO members Al Bartolozzi and Andrew Lusskin will judge the contest.
Celebrating Columbus Day
The honoring of Christopher Columbus first started in 1792 in New York City to celebrate the 300th anniversary of his landing in America. It wasn't until 1866 that a group of Italians in New York City organized an actual celebration day.
In 1937, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Oct. 12 as Columbus Day, and in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson made it a federal public holiday on the second Monday in October.
In the last 20 years, the facts of Columbus's discovery have come into dispute and the jury is still out. But the passion for being Italian has not faded in the hearts and minds of descendents of immigrants from the boot-shaped country.
"No, it's not what it used to be on Columbus Day - there used to be big parades and events when I was a kid. It was a really big deal," said Salvemini. "But I still love Italian culture - the food and its traditions. Being an Italian is great, but being an Italian American is better."
Tickets for the luncheon are $10. Call (201) 330-2078 for reservations.