It’s that time of year for Greek church’s annual food festival

This year, as you’re enjoying that gyro and slice of baklava at the 38th annual Las Vegas Greek Food Festival, make it a point to thank the people who cooked and baked it for you.

It’ll be easy. There’s a good chance the cooks and bakers will be the same people who serve it to you.

And that’s why the Greek food festival remains, almost four decades after its creation, one of the best home-grown festivals in town.

The annual party is sponsored by St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church whose members, then and now, cook all of the food and bake all of the pastries sold there and pretty much do everything else it takes to keep the tradition going.

The festival was created as a vehicle for parishioners to raise funds to build a church. Today, the church has been built and festival proceeds help to pay off the parish’s community center and for other parish activities. But, says chairman Gus Flangas, the festival always has been about more than raising money.

It’s also, he explains, "our showcase of the Greek culture and a showcase of our church and grounds as well."

And for the thousands of Southern Nevadans who stop by each year to enjoy authentic Greek food, Greek music and Greek dancing, the festival is, as Flangas puts it, a chance "to be Greek for a few hours."

The festival has drawn as many as 32,000 revelers to the church grounds over the years. "One reason we’ve got staying power on this, and why the event has lasted so long, is because we do it personally," Flangas says.

For example, church members began cooking and baking this year’s food offerings weeks ago, he says. "We don’t bring in vendors or anything else, so the quality of the food is always top-notch."

The food is prepared from parishioners’ own family recipes, which makes the food and pastries as authentically Greek as it gets. And, Flangas says, all of it is available for "reasonable prices. We’re still cheaper than a restaurant."

Take the festival’s signature combination plate, which includes a choice of lamb or Greek chicken, rice pilaf, dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), pastitsio (a sort of Greek lasagna), Greek salad and a dinner roll and costs only $15.

Also on the menu are such authentic Greek dishes are gyros (impress the servers and pronounce it correctly, as "yee-ro"), Greek fries, souvlaki sandwiches, Greek-style calamari, loukanika, spanakopita and tiropita, and an extensive pastry and dessert menu that includes loukoumathes, diples, kourambiethes and, of course, baklava.

"We started about a month-and-a-half out, because we’re cooking about 15,000 or 16,000 stuffed grape leaves. That’s very time-consuming," Flangas says. "We do about 350 large pans of pastitsio, and that’s not something you can do overnight.

"And baklava, we make that, and it’s very labor-intensive. We probably have 30 or 40 parishioners from the church really working hard on that."

But the effort is worth it, Flangas says. "These are some of the best recipes the church has to offer. And obviously, every Greek who cooks, theirs is the best. But these are really great."

Similarly, Flangas and his organizers strive to bring to their festival "the best Greek bands in the United States." This year’s performers include The Greek Company and The Levendes, and festival-goers also can catch performances by St. John parish’s own youth folk dance groups.

The music, and the dancing by both parishioners and festival-goers, runs pretty much nonstop, Flangas adds. "There are so many people out on the dance floor. It’s very electric and fun."

The festival also will offer kids’ activities, raffles and tours of St. John church, which invariably draws visitors curious about its iconography and architecture.

This year’s festival will honor members of the military and their families, Flangas says. Toward that end, active military and their immediate families will be admitted free, and the event will kick off with a torch run and relay. The church is seeking pledges for the run and Flangas says all of the proceeds from the run will be used to assist injured military personnel.

Longtime visitors will notice that this year’s festival runs three days, rather than the usual four. Last year’s attendance was about 26,000, Flangas says, a bit down from most years, and "we’re trying to get that number up this year."

Festival-goers also may find parking a bit more streamlined this year. In previous years, the church ran a shuttle from a central parking lot. This year, on-street parking will be available on Hacienda Avenue between Torrey Pines Drive and Jones Boulevard and on Torrey Pines between Hacienda and Tropicana Avenue. And, Flangas says, the church will run a shuttle around that parking area to pick up visitors and "shorten their walks."

But, this year, as always, Flangas says, the festival’s main attraction will be that joyful, life-affirming spirit that Greeks describe as "kefi."

"At nighttime, when the people are dancing out under the stars and music is playing and energy is out there, I think it’s probably — I’m not going to say probably — it’s the best event this town does, especially at nighttime," he says.

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

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