Get your Italian on tonight in Warren

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They'll go through roughly 70 eggplants at this year's Italian Festival at St. Alexander's Church, which starts Friday. But it won't be the same without the Eggplant Lady.

That was the affectionate nickname for long-time St. Alexander's parishioner Jennie Proto, who died this past January at age 88. For years, Ms. Proto worked the eggplant booth, slicing and cooking the vegetables as she made many thousands of sandwiches and other treats in the annual summer tradition. She worked every festival, now in its 42nd year.

"We'll miss her," said festival volunteer Mary Patriarca, who will pick up the eggplant reins this year with Martha Delekta. "We do 70 eggplants, and she had her hands on every piece. She's going to be very much missed, but she trained us well."

This year's festival won't just be a remembrance of Mrs. Proto, but also a departure from tradition. Usually, it's held in July but this year, organizers decided to hold it in June, banking on cooler weather.

"We've had some really hot" festivals in recent years, Ms. Patriarca said. "Hopefully it will be cooler. And no rain!"

Though it will be held earlier, the festival will have the same traditions Warrenites have come to expect. There will be lots of Italian food, from eggplant to macaroni and calamari. Plenty of sweets will be sold, too, including doughboys. Kids aren't usually much for calamari and such, but they do love games. There will be basketball shooting, ring tosses, mini  golf and more. Music will keep the mood going.

The annual festival is more than just the church's biggest fund-raiser. It's also a chance for folks who rarely see each other to come together in a spirit of community and camaraderie.

"I love it," Mrs. Patriarca said. "It's a lot of work but it's well worth it. The best thing is, everyone gets together in the booths. You have Steve Vargas and Tony Urban, who do the setup and have been doing it for years, to Julie Abbruzzi, my son Michael Anthony, my husband, all our friends. It's a group effort, and everyone works hard."

"We're down there all week (setting up) so you see a lot of each other. You go to church every Sunday and say 'Hi,' but that's it. This really brings everyone together.

The festival runs at St. Alexander's Church, 221 Main St., on Friday, June 21 from 6 to 10 p.m. and on Saturday, June 22 from 5 to 10 p.m.

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