Omaha's American Italian Heritage Society hasn't had a home of its own since it moved out of Little Italy in 2006.
That's about to change. Construction crews are grading land at 132nd and Fort Streets for the group's new hall, an 18,000-square-foot building that will house a banquet room, meeting areas and a full commercial kitchen, among other amenities.
It will have outdoor gardens for picnics and the society's annual LaFesta Italiana, traditionally held on Labor Day weekend. The society also plans to rent out the hall for weddings, fundraising dinners, corporate meetings and other events, said Terry Bolamperti, an Omaha dentist who is president of the group.
Builders should begin framing the structure within two weeks, he said.
The Italian-American group bought 8.5 acres at the west Omaha site in 2000 and said at the time that it expected to start a capital campaign and build a new hall by 2003. Then financial advisers told society leaders that a fundraising effort wasn't feasible because of a dip in the stock market and high interest rates, delaying the $2.8 million building until now, Bolamperti said.
The group is financing construction with a capital campaign and a loan, he said. The land is almost paid off.
The building should be done by fall 2014, and the group plans to have its next LaFesta on the grounds.
Mike Purdy of Purdy & Slack Architects in Omaha designed the hall in an Italianate Renaissance style, with a red tile roof, colors you would see on older buildings in Italy and a portico over the front, Bolamperti said.
“We wanted something that when people go by, it has that 'wow' factor.”
The Planning Board and the City Council have approved the project. City planner Dave Fanslau said the board received a letter from a neighborhood group supporting it. Vacanti and Randazzo Construction Inc. is the builder.
The hall will accommodate between 500 and 600 people for sit-down dinners and more for lectures, meetings or other events, Bolamperti said. Rental groups can pick from a list of preferred caterers.
Plans for the building and grounds go way beyond dinners and LaFesta. The group's mission is to promote and preserve Italian heritage and culture, Bolamperti said, so it hopes to offer history, language and cooking classes, travelogues and other educational films, genealogy activities, folk dancing, opera and other music.
About 500 families — most but not all with Italian heritage — belong to the society, which was established in 1980.
Since vacating its home in a 125-year-old building at 14th and Pine Streets seven years ago, the group has met at Pasta Amore restaurant in Rockbrook Village. Its owner, Leo Fascianella, is a member of the society.
The group also has rented local churches for some events. LaFesta has been at the National Guard Center near 116th Street and Rainwood Road for the past few years.
The initial building may not be the last construction on the site. Bolamperti said the society has a “phase two plan” for a historical center to display and preserve photographs and other artifacts.
“We feel like we're the stewards of the memories of the Italians in Omaha,” Bolamperti said.