Honoring Westport's rich Italian heritage, the 27th annual Festival Italiano kicks off this weekend with a parade that runs through the heart of its Saugatuck neighborhood, where many Italian immigrants originally settled.

Carnival rides, games, live entertainment and, yes, a lot of food draws crowds every year to this popular summer party celebrating Italy and Italian-American heritage.

Roberta Delladonna Troy, who has been at the helm of Festival Italiano for seven years, said this year's extravaganza is sponsored in memory of the late Lou Santella, a native Westporter and past president of the Sons of Italy. Although the Sons of Italy organization initially founded the Festival Italiano, it is now takes place under the auspices of the Westport Festival Italiano Inc., a non-profit organization whose mission is to raise funds to support local and national charities, and merit scholarships to young people in Fairfield County.

Troy said that Lou and his brother, Chip, as well as so many longtime Westport residents, were part of the core group that founded the festival in the 1980s. "He taught me his job," Troy said. "He was a good mentor."

Following the parade, Troy will offer a few remarks about the contributions of the Santella family. Lou's wife, Marge, is expected to be in attendance.

Over the years, many people -- such as Andy Grega, Carol Hendrickson and Camille Sarno -- have stepped up to the plate and offered their time and hard work to ensure that the Festival Italiano continues. To commemorate the dedication exhibited by the Romano family, this year's grand marshal is Timmy Romano, accompanied by his mother, Roz Romano.

"They are both lifetime residents of Westport and have done an awful lot for the festival over the years," Troy explained. "Timmy's father, the late Sal Romano, was also one of the festival's founders. We used to call him `Sally Peppers' and he supported the festival and the Sons of Italy and now his son and wife are walking right in his footsteps."

Pasta, pizza and specialty Italian desserts are among the traditional Italian fare available throughout the festival, which takes place in the spacious commuter parking lots, located next to the Saugatuck Railroad Station. Non-profit organizations, such as the Norwalk Sons of Italy and St. Ann's Club, will offer, once again, their popular pizza frites and sausage-and-pepper and meatball grinders.

However, also on the menus are hot dogs and hamburgers, barbeque ribs from downtown Westport's Bobby Q's Restaurant, Greek entrees provided by Four Brothers, and Asian cuisine from Jasmine's. For the first time, a local church will sell watermelon and fruit cups.

Westport Fishing Co. will provide lobster dinners and clam chowder, too.

"We have some new vendors joining us this year," Troy noted. "There is definitely a variety of food available and something for everyone."

Live entertainment begins at 6 p.m. Thursday with the Tony Reno Band. A medley of show tunes, performed by high school students involved in Westport's Staples Players, begins at 9 p.m. This summer the Staples Players, in collaboration with the Westport Continuing Education, will present the musical "Rent."

Headlining Friday night are The Legends and The Del Rays. Shows are from 7 to 11 p.m. Taking the stage Saturday night are two bands, Déjà vu and the Duprees.

Italian music will be broadcast all afternoon Sunday. In the evening, Tony Costas will take to the stage from 1 to 3 p.m., and I'Liguri, featuring Lino and Pino, will perform an eclectic mix of modern and traditional accordion music, from 4 to 6 p.m. Emil Stucchio is at 7 p.m. and the 2010 Festival Italiano closes with The Brooklyn Reunion playing the audience's favorite Doo-Wop music.

A performance of operatic and classic music will also be performed Sunday by Westport native Lucia Palmieri, a professional soprano at the New York Grand Opera. Palmieri will also assist in opening the Festival Italiano on Thursday night by singing the National Anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner."

There is a $5 cover charge Friday through Sunday nights for everyone under the age of 12.

Festival Italiano's schedule of events could be found online at festivalitaliano.info. Nick Saviano, another longtime Westport resident and member of Festival Italiano's core committee, is responsible for maintaining and updating the site.

"I don't know what we would without him," Troy said. "Well, we wouldn't have this beautiful website if it wasn't for him."

Parking is free and a shuttle bus service sponsored by Star Distributors and Pepsi Bottling Co. transports people from local parking lots to the festival's Saugatuck site. Major sponsors include Fairfield County Bank, Mitchell's of Westport, Dreamland Amusements, Westport National Bank, Camp Wedgie and the Town of Westport.