“Come on down,” urged the well-dressed man. “Come on!”

My husband, Mike, and I were sitting on a bench on Main Street in Italy, taking a break from the hot sun. We had come to see the “biggest little town in Texas,” as Italy bills itself, celebrate its 125th anniversary. It was the first weekend in July, and the town’s main thoroughfare was packed: Families manned tables laden with homemade crafts, food vendors worked busily to satisfy hungry customers, and children wandered freely among jewelry and artwork booths and all along the sidewalks. Mike and I had stopped for an Italian-sausage sandwich and paused to rest in the shade to people-watch as we ate.

“Come on down, I said!” urged the man again. He was talking to three other men seated next to us.

“Oh, I don’t think so!” one of them replied.

“But it’ll be great,” countered the first.

“Oh, no. It’ll be a long time before I come down to see you there!”

The men laughed, and the first one moved on, shaking his head and smiling. Mike and I asked the men where he had wanted them to go.

“To the tea-cake contest,” one of them replied. He smiled in response to our puzzled looks and added, “It’s being held at the multipurpose building. But the multipurpose building is sometimes used as the town’s funeral home, so it’ll be a long time before we go down there.” He grinned. I laughed. Having grown up in a city of about three million people, I’m not used to the friendliness and slower pace of small towns, so I was tickled both by the humor and the ease with which the men included us. As we chatted, they greeted passersby by name, asking for updates on the many town events scheduled for that day.

This summer’s celebration of Italy’s 1879 founding was supposedly one of the town’s biggest parties yet, complete with a parade, a 5K run, a classic-car show, live music, and entertainment for a whole weekend. Mike and I decided we wanted to witness the elaborate birthday bash; Italians, after all, are known for their joie de vivre. So on Saturday, July 3, we drove to Italy, about 45 miles south of Dallas, and arrived just as the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Show Group, a featured guest that day, was wrapping up a celebratory performance smack-dab in the middle of town. The girls were a huge hit, and as Mike and I walked toward the action, we had to wade through a long line of admirers vying for their autographs. We stopped and watched for a while after the show—I had never seen the famous cheerleaders in person—then moved on. For there was much to see: Street-side stalls displayed everything from soaps to bedspreads and furniture to bottles of colored sand; a traveling puppet show moved down the road to set up for its next act; kids milled everywhere, dancing to the music of several local bands and ordering snow cones. A barbecue cookoff was taking place at the far end of Main Street, and we got to sample the day’s efforts after ogling at the classic-car show and before ambling over to an exhibit put on by Southwest Mobile Dairy. I watched enthralled as Biscuit the Cow got milked; here was another thing I had not seen before.

Mike and I spent the rest of the day wandering through Italy, stopping in at a few stores and admiring the town’s beautiful old homes and many churches. We were perhaps most struck, however, by Italy’s people and their friendliness. Time seemed to move unhurried for everyone, and we got the sense of being with family: Groups of friends talked leisurely along the sidewalks, fanning themselves in the heat; a man selling fresh bread at one of the booths engaged me in a discussion about his baking; a woman passing by later talked to me as if we were old friends. Although Mike and I never made it to the tea-cake contest (which had been moved from the multipurpose building to the town’s community center, to allay any fears of mortality), we did spend a good while shooting the breeze with the Italian men we had met. One of them told us that his children, instead of moving away after college, were actually choosing to come back to Italy because they loved the community so. Mike and I nodded. We’d probably come back too.