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First-Ever ‘Sopranos’ Con Celebrates James Gandolfini, Tracksuits and Artie Bucco’s Infamous Rabbit

Few shows have changed the way we watch television like “The Sopranos.” As one of the most critically and commercially successful TV shows in history, “The Sopranos” has also maintained a cult-like following that has lasted since its literal abrupt ending in 2007. So it makes sense that fans would rally together to commemorate 10 years of hitjobs and hotheads with the first-ever “SopranosCon.”

Billed as “for the fans, by the fans,” the inaugural SopranosCon was hosted at the Meadowslands Exposition Center in Secaucus, N.J. Nov. 21-22. Mike Mota and Dan Trader, who created and organized the two-day convention, were given permission by HBO (which originally aired the program) to proceed with the festivities as an unofficial fan event. Maybe the premium cabler only signed off to help promote the upcoming “Sopranos” prequel “The Many Saints of Newark,” which is coming in 2020, but judging from the turnout, it may have been smart for the network to capitalize on the event.

In case you missed it, Variety spent two whole days in New Jersey to cover the festivities. Read more if you had some serious FOMO and want the greatest hits from the first-ever SopranosCon.

Getting There
The true SopranosCon experience began on the way there: Taking the 320 bus from Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, approximately 80% of riders were eager “Sopranos” fans making their way to the inaugural convention. It was almost like a pilgrimage crossing the Lincoln Tunnel. But the ride was anything but quiet: generations of families were eager to cross the bridge into the event. Getting there was almost like the unofficial unofficial SopranosCon.

In the Will Call line into the center, people were shouting and yelling at the ticketers, wondering why the line was moving so slowly and blaming them for any errors that took place. At one point, there was a small altercation between a box office staff member and an elderly male patron. Voices were raised very quickly, with the “Sopranos” attitude coming out quickly: “This guy is a f—ing a–hole!” exclaimed the angry patron in a thick New Jersey accent.

His son then chimed in, saying: “Don’t give this jerk your f—ing money” in an equally robust accent. But they weren’t escorted out. Rather, they got their tickets and walked in — but not before a middle finger was thrown. Once they left the line, it was as if nothing had happened. It was truly a warm welcome into SopranosCon.

The Venue
The supposedly spacious 61,000 square-foot Meadowlands Exposition Center was a bit small for all of the hullabaloo. Although there was organization in the layout, the walking paths were way too narrow to handle the multitude of people. There was only one way to get to the main stage, with people going in and out on the same, very thin pathway. It sometimes took up to 10 minutes to get through, so it would have been wise to have at least two paths, if not more. But this being the first convention of its kind for “The Sopranos” it’s easy to forgive the shortcomings of the event.

But the exposition center was decked out with with vendors all across the TriState area, each boding some sort of “Sopranos” memorabilia. But it wasn’t just limited to t-shirts and keychains. You could even get real tattoos of your favorite “Sopranos” character or quote, starting at $100 a pop. Across the venue were multiple photo-ops to make your Instagram page glow, including an exact replica of Dr. Jennifer Melfi’s psychiatrist office and a fully-functioning Bada Bing! strip club, complete with drinks on tap and a stripper pole. It’s everything for which a “Sopranos” superfan could have ever asked.

The Fans
SopranosCon would be nothing without the fans. And boy, did they show up! Many people even traveled from afar to attend, including a Canadian woman who hosts a “Sopranos”-themed podcast and a couple who trekked all the way from California to see some of their favorite actors for the show and experience the fun firsthand.

The fans also came appropriately dressed for the event. Never in my life have I seen so many Adias tracksuits in one place. There was one in every color, some wearing white tank-tops underneath, but mostly there were a lot of bare chests. Of course, there were also costumes and even a costume contest. The most common getup (besides the beloved tracksuits) were rabbit costumes, which is a direct reference to the now-famous scene in which Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia) shoots a rabbit and subsequently cooks it. But even if you didn’t dress up, just being there made you feel like you were a part of the show.

The Food
Another highlight was all the local food vendors. It wasn’t surprising that most of the food was Italian — there was no shortage of meatball subs, cannolis or even “f—ing ziti” on the menu. Some well known names, like Valducci’s Pizza, made the cut. There were even some favorite foods from the show, including the “Original Zeppole,” made and sold by Meadowslands Grill. They even had Whitman’s Samplers, from the now famous quote “What do you want? An apology? A f—ing Whitman’s Sampler?” Unfortunately, the only thing not found on any menu was rabbit.

One of the vendors even created a cannoli tower, with cannolis lined up on display before a screen for all to see. Given its fun presentation and where it was stationed, many believed (myself included) that these cannolis were free to grab. This was very much not the case.

“I’m here protecting the cannolis because people are stealing them,” said the cannoli protector.

In Memoriam
There is no way you could go into SopranosCon and not pay some sort of homage to James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano himself, who died in 2013. There was a large “In Loving Memory” wall to commemorate stars from the show who have since passed away, which also included Frank Vincent, Tom Aldredge and even Sydney Pollack, who made several guest appearances on the show.

But it was truly Gandolfini’s moment, and you could tell from the atmosphere just how beloved he was. His face was everywhere, including at least two large photomosaic of him near the center of the exposition center. Even the stars couldn’t stop talking about him. During the “Women of Sopranos” panel, moderator Jersey Jesse asked “Sopranos” actors Maureen Van Zandt, Kathrine Narducci, Sofia Milos and Lola Glaudini what their favorite moment with Gandolfini was, as well has his legacy on the show.

“He was the sweetest, warmest and most generous person, and he’s always watching us. Literally, I can see his eyes peeking over the panel back there, ” Van Zandt said, referring to the large photomosaic of Gandolfini.

Gandolfini may have been missed, but Van Zandt was quick to also bring up the legacy of “The Sopranos,” and how the show has brought everyone back together — the fans included — even after a decade since the show ended: “I think that what people responded to the most with ‘The Sopranos’ is that its about family. Two [different] kinds of family, but still family. And I see that you all here are a family as well, and I think it’s really beautiful.”

The Verdict
If you’re a “Sopranos” super-fan, this event is for you. Who knows if it will be an annual occurrence or just a one-time party, but from the looks of the giant turnout, perhaps a second “SopranosCon” prior to “The Many Saints of Newark” would be cause to dust-off your Adidas tracksuit once more.

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