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FOOD NEWS

It's time once again for the Memphis Italian Festival, being held at Marquette Park at the corner of Mt. Moriah and Park Avenue, June 2nd through 4th. In its 16th year, the festival continues to evolve. Among the old favorites, such as grape-stomping and bocce, there will be some new attractions.

"One thing that we're doing this year is the People's Choice Awards," says festival chairman Paul Volpe. "In the past, people have asked how they can get a taste of the gravy. Saturday afternoon only, 12 of our cooking teams will be competing. Our patrons will be able to sample four spaghetti gravies and judge for themselves."

The contest will begin at 12:30 p.m. in the wine and cheese garden. The garden features tables, where guests can purchase a bottle of wine, relax, and enjoy their afternoon with a meat and cheese tray provided by Lucchesi's. There is even a wait staff.

Chefs from area restaurants, including the Half Shell, Zoe's Kitchen, Owen Brennan, Romano's Macaroni Grill, Bari, and Theresa's Italian Café, will give cooking demonstrations on Friday and Saturday.

Friday night, the festival goes country with Phil Vassar. "This is the first time we've had a country performance," says Volpe. "Phil won the CMA Songwriter of the Year Award. Saturday, we'll have Chuck Negron, formerly of Three Dog Night, and Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad."

The hours are 6 to 10 p.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Admission is $4 Thursday and $8 Friday and Saturday. Advance tickets can be purchased at any Memphis location of Little Caesar's Pizza for a $1 discount. All proceeds benefit the Holy Rosary parish school.

If you run into a six-foot armadillo named Andy, you must be at the Texas Roadhouse. Andy is the ambassador of the restaurant, which heavily supports community involvement. In addition to working with Habitat for Humanity, Special Olympics, and other nonprofit organizations, Texas Roadhouse sends Andy to visit area schools to read to the students.

"It was their commitment to quality and Andy's outreach program that brought me back to Memphis," says manager/partner Steven Schaifer. Schaifer has lived in Nashville and moved to Memphis in 1995 while his daughter was attending the University of Memphis. While here, he worked for the Olive Garden and helped open Amerigo. He returned to Nashville in 1999. He says he's pleased to be back in Memphis, not only because of his partnership with Texas Roadhouse but also to spend time with his 16-month-old grandchild.

Andy is not the only celebrity guests may see at the location that opened near Wolfchase on May 16th. The restaurant, a chain based out of Kentucky, has a partnership with Willie Nelson, who's been known to stop by some of the restaurant's 200 locations in 37 states. But if Nelson's not in town, guests can pay homage to the country-music legend by sitting in Willie's Corner, a booth decorated with Nelson memorabilia. A second location will be opening July 4th on Goodman Road in Horn Lake.

When it comes to food, guests can choose among hand-cut steaks, fresh trout or catfish, chicken dinners, and a number of home-cooked side items. Texas Roadhouse hours are 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday, and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday. Guests can make reservations by calling 382-5547.

Texas Roadhouse, 2810 New Brunswick

"A lot of area restaurants are stepping to the plate to help senior citizens in need," says Bert Kelly, director of public relations for MIFA. Throughout the month of June, local restaurants and businesses will partner with MIFA to support the organization's Empty Plates campaign. "The MIFA meals program is one of the largest Meals on Wheels programs in the country, and we're heavily dependent on the community to keep the program going," says Kelly. Memphians can support the program, which delivers 3,100 meals each day, by purchasing a paper plate for $1 at participating businesses.

The campaign also includes a radiothon on Infinity stations -- FM 100, 93X, and AM 790 -- as well as direct mail marketing. Last year, $70,000 was raised.

"When people donate through the mail or donate on the radiothon," Kelly says, "they will qualify for grand prizes, such as roundtrip tickets on Northwest Airlines and autographed guitars signed by Switchfoot, the Killers, or Lisa Marie Presley."

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