MERRILLVILLE — The Region's original Greek Fest is turning 50, so get ready to shout “opa” and celebrate the milestone at the SS. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
Planning started last fall for the event that takes place from 5-11 p.m. today, noon to 11 p.m. Saturday and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday at the church, 8000 Madison St.
During the half-century of operating the festival that shares the Greek culture, the church has developed a tradition of attracting large crowds.
“People plan their weekends around it,” said Lake County Auditor John Petalas, president of the parish council.
As preparations continue, it's easy for church members to reminisce about past events.
Petalas said SS. Constantine and Helen was the first to host a Greek festival in the area, and it all started with the church having annual one-day picnics that were only open to parishioners.
When SS. Constantine and Helen moved from Gary to Merrillville, it was decided to begin having three-day festivals that were open to the public.
“It eventually blossomed to five days,” Petalas said.
He recalled how the line of cars waiting to get in the festival at one time would stretch down U.S. 30 to Interstate 65.
“That’s how big and popular it was,” Petalas said.
The annual event later scaled back to three days, and the parish is satisfied hosting it over that amount of time.
Although there have been a few adjustments over the years, there are some things that have stayed consistent.
“Everybody comes for the food,” Petalas said.
That's a main reason the Greek Fest has remained successful over the past five decades, he said.
The barbecue lamb is a favorite, but there are plenty of other options available. The menu for the upcoming festival also includes Greek chicken, pork shish kebab, gyros, pastitsio, Greek fries and saganaki.
There are also several items for those looking for something sweet.
“We’re going to have pastries galore,” Petalas said.
Baklava, strudels, cookies, loukoumades (deep-fried honey puffs) and diples (fried dough topped with cinnamon, honey and nuts) can be purchased.
A beer garden will be open as well as a coffee tent featuring European-style coffee.
Petalas said “the food is reason they come, but the entertainment keeps them here.”
The live entertainment includes country music group High Noon, which is performing from 7-11 p.m. Friday.
The Minitones Band will take the stage from 6-11 p.m. Saturday.
Petalas said the group, which performs American and Greek music, was popular in the 1970s and 1980s before they dispersed.
He said many of the Minitones members are parishioners at SS. Constantine and Helen, and they decided to reunite for the festival.
“We're all looking forward to that,” Petalas said.
Ormi also will be playing Greek music from 5-10 p.m. Sunday.
Starting at 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, the church's Greek Orthodox youth folk dancers will put on performances, Petalas said.
A carnival was once prominently featured during past Greek Fests, but the church stopped offering it during recent events, Petalas said.
In honor of the 50th anniversary, the church is bringing back carnival rides and games. Wristbands will be available for $20 from 1-5 p.m. Saturday.
As the festival nears, Petalas is thankful for the support it has received from Northwest Indiana.
He said proceeds from the event not only benefit the church. Funding also is used to help operate the Ross Township Food Pantry and a church program that offers financial assistance to those in need.
“This festival is 50, and it's helped a lot of the ministries of the church,” Petalas said.