Houston has been in party mode since the Astros captured their first World Series win and that celebration seemed to carry over to the annual “Una Notte in Italia” gala presented by Festari for Men on Friday night.
Over 600 guests swarmed the Royal Sonesta Hotel near the Galleria, and much of the buzz was about the thrilling ride the ‘Stros have taken fans on – and how fired up but exhausted they were from watching it.
“Tonight, we celebrate Houston, and can I just plug the Astros?" co-chairman Sippi Khurana posed to the audience at the sold-out event. Based on the rousing applause, it sounded like the answer was a definite “Yes.”
But if anyone was struggling from a lack of sleep due to the nonstop excitement that’s hooked the city these last few weeks, they didn’t show it. In fact, the energy from galagoers electrified the ballroom as 24 local businessmen, doctors, laywers, and athletes took the stage for a “celebrity” runway show, a tradition at the gala that has lasted for more than 15 years.
“Una Notte in Italia” also benefits a charity every year, and this time it was the Houston Area Women’s Center, which aims to end the cycle of domestic and sexual violence by providing shelter, counseling and advocacy to those who need it. The night raised over $320,000 for the organization.
“When you support survivors, you want to reach across the spectrum, so we want to encourage men to be part of this dialogue,” Houston Area Women's Center chief marketing officer Chau Nguyen said. “We are thrilled to be the beneficiary charity this year because we get to include all the great men and all the male athletes. What a wonderful opportunity for us to share our message and mission.”
KPRC2 news anchor Dominique Sachse, who was accompanied by husband Nick Florescu for the evening, and honorary chairman Debbie Festari led the commentary on the fashion show, explaining that each man picked a personal song to walk to – but that was far from the only way the models, clad in Festari fall fashions, soaked up the spotlight.
Tom Fitzpatrick, who is on the board of directors for the Houston Area Women’s Center, appeared on the catwalk first, followed by Rob Chramosta, co-owner of Vintage Contessa & Times Past with wife Donae. Like many of the ‘Uomini Belli’ (beautiful men in Italian) after him, Chramosta used the moment to shower the crowd with goodies. Chramosta opted for faux jewels and “making it rain” – a phrase that refers to throwing out money in the air. While it’s presumed those dollar bills weren’t the real deal, that didn’t stop the crowd from lapping them up.
Other models such as Sam Governale, owner of the restaurant Emmaline, Dean Putterman, Al Lindseth and Dr. Roland Maldonado of Midtown Family Medicine all had their own cheering section with noisemakers and confetti to boot. The squeals escalated when some of the men slowly took off their suit jackets and twirled them around – hey, they were just giving the people what they wanted.
There was also no shortage of men who let the music move them. Attorney John Nichols seemed to borrow a few steps from Bruno Mars as the singer’s “24K Magic” pumped into the room. Another Bruno Mars hit kept the crowd on their feet when Ajay Khurana walked out to “Uptown Funk” alongside his son, Shaan. The latter held his own, getting hi-fives and fist bumps as he reached the end of the runway.
The hits kept coming thanks to Maroon 5’s “Sugar,” AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” and Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” being the songs of choice for Nick Merchant, Duke Ensell, and Ryan Bass, respectively. Bass later returned to the runway after the show was over but only to divert the attention to his girlfriend – by proposing (he went for the much more romantic “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran to set the tone for that moment).
The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” did just that to the crowd when Kiki Dikmen, managing partner at Choice Energy Services, pulled out an Astros "Earn History" towel and swung it in the air, turning his moment on the runway into a rally that might rival that of any sports match.
Cheering on champions continued when former Houston Rocket Mario Elie strutted down the catwalk. Houston Texans Andre Hal and Lamar Miller brought their swagger to the occasion along with linebacker Brian Peters, who the announcers reiterated was single. So, for the ladies looking to mingle in time for the holidays, you might have a shot.
Linebacker Whitney Mercilus joined his teammates, taking the opportunity to snap a selfie with partygoers mid-walk.
Baseball Hall of Famer and former Houston Astro Jeff Bagwell rounded out the athletes in the show – an appearance that was a home run as guests leapt up to root for him. The yells only grew louder for Festari owner Rudy Festari, who worked it for the finale.
But perhaps the moment that best summed it up was when all the models, including Larry Wagner, Guillermo Sierra, Martijn Van Koolwijk, Blu Whipple, Chad Pinkerton, and Michael Bertuccio, returned to the platform for “It’s Raining Men” by The Weather Girls.
And if the forecast called for an affair where tall, blonde, dark and lean would take the runway like the song said, predictions were spot-on!
It was all about the men, and they knew how to deliver to a pumped-up crowd, who clapped along, eager to capture the moments on their cellphones while in-full swing with the “Hallelujahs” and “Amens” by the time “It’s Raining Men” hit the chorus.
Later, KPRC2 anchor and reporter Andy Cerota and Miss Houston USA 2017 Hannah Johannes helped lead the live auction. Guests Jane and Larry Wagner scored the Hot Weekend in Houston package: a private dinner for 8 guests at Emmaline restaurant alongside Houston Texans players and a weekend rental of a Ferrari or Lamborghini.
While most parties tend to wind down as the clock inches closer to midnight, it seems this one turned up as DJ Senega provided the tunes for the after party.
Spotted in the lively group were co-chairman Kendra Smith, auction co-chairmen Jess Rogers and Lauryn Sanford, dinner co-chairmen Elizabeth Peterson and Stacey Soriero, fashion co-chairman Sneha Merchant, kick-off co-chairmen Brigitte Kalai and Melissa Mithoff, Michael Mithoff, decorations co-chairmen Nina Magon and Tricia Nelson Oliver, Vivian Wise, Lucinda and Javier Loya, Brigette and Bashar Kalai, Tatiana Sierra, Angela Nichols, Gale and Tricia Oliver, Jonathan Phillips, Rachel Bagwell, Joanne King Herring, Stacey Lindseth, Neal Hamil, and Diane Lokey Farb.