"I AM LA" could stand for many things -- for example, it could be the proud assertion of an Angeleno, invoking the city's strikingly diverse composition of ethnic cultures.
This Saturday, the term "I AM LA" will resonate in Downtown L.A. as the abbreviation of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, which is hosting its fifth food and wine festival, "Taste of Italy."
The event is a fundraiser for the in-progress museum, which is nearing the end of a 20-year process working toward building a brick-and-mortar home for its collection. Now under construction on the corner of Cesar Chavez Avenue and Main Street, it will be located in the historic Italian Hall building. It is planned to open in 2014.
Built in 1908, the building functioned for decades as a sort of community center for Italians in L.A. and is the oldest remaining structure from what was once the city's original little Italy. It fell into disrepair in the 1950s and the Historic Italian Hall Foundation, a nonprofit, was formed in 1994 to restore it and create an on-site museum.
"It will be a 21st century interactive museum that examines the history of Italians in Southern California and beyond," says IAMLA executive director Marianna Gatto, "as well as the ongoing contributions of Italians and Italian Americans in the region."
Gatto says the museum is less interested in showcasing its collection, "that priceless vase displayed in a box," and instead aims to tell stories of individuals, with social context, through objects. Toward that end, IAMLA has amassed more than 5,000 items -- including photographs, clothing and archival documents -- dating back to the 18th century and documenting the social history of Italian Angelenos.
Among the artifacts on display: an immigrant's trunk, enemy ID cards from WWII and luggage ID tags from passengers traveling to the U.S. from Italy as well as more contemporary items such as an Italian actress' outfit worn in a famous grape-stomping scene on the "I love Lucy" show and an entire Little Joe's collection from L.A.'s soon-to-be demolished Chinatown restaurant.
This weekend's festival will be held in the outdoor plaza at the tip of Olvera Street. The band Canzoniere Grecanico, which plays ancient Italian music set to a modern beat, is flying in from Puglia, in Southern Italy, for the event. L.A.-based soprano Elisabetta Russo will perform Italian opera pieces and the L.A.-based Italian band La Dolce Vita will perform Italian funk songs.
"It's so magical here at nighttime, with the sun setting and all these historical buildings in the background," Gatto says. "You really feel the city's roots."