What may be the nation’s largest Lebanese Food Festival celebrates its 29th edition on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, May 17-19, at St. Anthony’s Maronite Catholic Church in Glen Allen, not far from Short Pump and Innsbrook.
More than 20,000 people are expected to attend the three-day festival on the church grounds. The festival also has become one of Central Virginian’s largest ethnic food and cultural events.
“Our festival seems to grow a little bit each year,” said Monsignor George Sebaali, pastor of St. Anthony’s. “Some people have been coming every year since the festival began and others come for the first time, often after hearing friends and neighbors tell them about the great homemade food, folk dancing and live traditional music. Once you come the first time, it seems you’re hooked.”
In recent years, medical researchers also have touted the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet.
“Everyone has always told us how good the food is,” Monsignor Sebaali said. “Now we know it’s good for you, too.”
Feeding more than 20,000 guests requires a lot of advance planning and work, especially when the food is homemade. Church members have been working since February to prepare the traditional delicacies from fresh ingredients. One of the major tasks is baking about 30,000 meat, cheese, spinach, and spinach and cheese pies – one of the festival favorites.
Many popular items are prepared fresh right before festival-goers eyes, including zalabia (a dessert made fried dough strips served with a special sweet syrup), shawirma (sliced tender strips of marinated beef or chicken broiled on an open flame and served on pita bread), and shrimp and beef shish kabob.
“We follow traditional Lebanese recipes, handed down over the generations,” Monsignor Sebaali. “These are the same dishes many of our parishioners serve at family gatherings or for special occasions.”
There also are numerous vegetarian items, including falafel (fried spiced vegetable patties served with lettuce, tomato and tahini sauce on pita bread), humus bi tahini (a dip made of ground chick peas delicately flavored with sesame oil, lemon juice and Middle Eastern spices) tabouli (a salad made of parsley, cracked wheat, onion, tomatoes, oil and lemon juice), bubbaghanooge (a dip made from baked eggplants, Middle Eastern spices, lemon juice, garlic and sesame oil), and loubiyeh (string beans in a spiced tomato sauce) served over rice pilaf.
To top off the meal, there is a large selection of traditional pastries and other sweet desserts, as well as Lebanese beer and wine.
Given the popularity of the festival, some attendees choose to come at off hours – before and after the traditional lunch and dinner times. In any case, there is plenty of covered seating available in the fresh-air pavilion and adjoining tents for ala carte dinning. Sit-down dinners are served in the air-conditioned church social hall.
In recent years the church has worked to add more paved parking and seating, and to shorten the food lines. An automated teller machine has been added for the convenience of guests.
There will be live music and folk dancing throughout the festival on the festival stage.
Festival guests also are invited to enjoy the children’s playground and wooded grounds. Many people bring blankets to spread out under the shade trees to have a “Lebanese picnic.”
“Timeless Lebanese Recipes,” a cookbook featuring many of the items offered at the festival and many more traditional Lebanese dishes, may be purchased at the festival.
Directions and information
The church is located about one mile north of West Broad Street, near Short Pump and Innsbrook, and convenient to I-64 (Exit 178B onto U.S. 250/West Broad east), I-295 (exit Nuckols Road south) and Route 288 (merge onto I-64 east, then Exit 178B).
Take-out orders may be faxed in to 804-273-9914 or called in to 804-346-1161 or 804-270-7234. No e-mail orders will be taken.
More information, including the complete menu and directions to the church, is available on the Web at www.stanthonymaronitechurch.org. Information also is available by calling 804-346-1161 or 804-270-7234 or via e-mail at Festival@StAnthonyMaroniteChurch.org.