Yolanda Rodriguez grasped her husband Trinidad's hand and joined in song with an Italian cabaret band Sunday that filled Santa Rosa's Veterans Memorial Building with a son's soulful promise to return to his mother.

Rodriguez closed her eyes and sang along with the tune that echoed the sentiment of generations of immigrants who have left parents behind to chart new lives in new lands.

"Italians love their mothers," said Rodriguez, a Windsor High School counselor who lives in Napa.

The music, language and pasta of Italy drew Rodriguez and at least 2,000 others to the veterans hall for the 23rd annual Festa Italiana.

The one-day event is held by the North Bay Italian Cultural Foundation and raises funds through admission tickets and a silent auction for scholarships the group awards to students studying Italian at the Santa Rosa Junior College.

"Everyone loves the food, but we also want to present the music, the culture," said foundation president Jeanette Mancini Mitchell — who was born Ginetta Mancini to Italian immigrant parents.

A Santa Rosa native, Mitchell stood before a row of posters and artifacts telling the histories of some early Italian residents who helped shape Sonoma County. Mitchell grew up speaking Italian with her grandmothers and remembers how they began keeping the language private during World War II, when Italians in the United States came under suspicion.

The posters told of early settlers such as Giuseppe Pisenti, who started a dairy in the Todd district of Santa Rosa around 1881, and outlined the growing schedule of the Bertolini family, who provided San Francisco with fruits and vegetables.

Mitchell said she remembers watching the old Bertolini vegetable truck trundling down the road toward San Francisco. "I can still see the truck," she said.

She also remembers the fear in the community during World War II after Aristide Bertolini didn't make it home before curfew and his family learned he had been taken to an internment camp.

Across the room, Optio Titus Lucetius Aeldred stood in ancient Roman armor and demonstrated to a group of rapt onlookers how a palm-size bowl was once an ancient Roman flashlight.

When not second-in-command of Legio X Fretensis Cohors IV, he is Douglas Unsworth, an attorney from Hayward with expertise in Roman history.

Windsor sisters Elaina and Larissa Longhetto, 14-year-old twins, asked him about the artifacts filling several tables, from wax writing tablets to charms worn by soldiers.

"I'm fascinated by history," Elaina said.

"Aqueducts and sewer systems ... Rome had a million people," Larissa said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.

On Twitter @jjpressdem.