A long-delayed Italian cultural center in Bensonhurst held its first public event on Oct. 7.
Brooklynites kicked off Italian Restaurant Week at Il Centro — the Federation of Italian-American Organizations’ new five-story cultural center still under construction on the corner of 17th and Benson avenues.
Revelers in formal attire sipped wine and feasted on plates from some of the borough’s finest Italian eateries — juxtaposed against exposed drywall, temporary barricades, and just a few motes of construction dust in the nearly finished center. Opening its half-hung doors for the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce fete was all part of the Federation’s plan, according to members who say they were excited to bring the community into the center 10 years in the making.
“It feels great — we want people to be using it,” said Jack Spatola, president of the Federation’s board of directors.
The Federation began the project a decade ago, but setbacks in acquiring land and funding — as well as inevitable construction delays — slowed the project, said Joe Rizzi, a director at the center. Now the Federation expects the center to open in December, but its members are too excited to wait for contractors to wrap up work.
The borough’s annual Columbus Day Parade on Oct. 11 will terminate outside the center, too.
“Our biggest milestone is the parade ending in front of the building,” Rizzi said.
Il Centro’s first two events celebrate Italian heritage, but the center is intended for the community at large, and will also preserve the cultures of the various ethnicities that call Bensonhurst home, directors said.
In addition to classes on Italian language and cooking, residents can learn languages like Mandarin, said Spatola.
“We want people to find their identify by living it,” he said.
The building will also house universal pre-kindergarten and a social worker, said Rizzi.
When finished, Il Centro will boast a floor area equivalent to a football field, including a library, fitness center, gymnasium, lap pool, and a rooftop garden, he said.
The first-floor cultural center and common area will be open to all — members get access to the rest of the building, said director of operations Sara Steinweiss. Membership fees will vary for students, seniors, and families, and all levels of membership are designed to be affordable — though directors have yet to set the actual pricing structure, Rizzi said.
Politicians kicked in most of the money to build the $15 million center, but private donations also contributed to the construction cost, Rizzi said.
Il Centro will be the largest Italian-American cultural center in the city — and a valuable asset for a neighborhood that is slim on community facilities, Spatola said.
“When you’re able to produce something everyone can use, it’s a step forward for society,” he said.