By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jul 17, 2017 at 6:56 PM

When I chatted over the phone with Sal "The Voice" Valentinetti last Tuesday, he’d just had a great weekend.

The 21-year-old classic crooner, discovered on last year’s season of "America’s Got Talent," had just released his first record, the six-song "The Voice" EP (featuring hits like "The Way You Look Tonight" and "Can’t Take My Eyes off of You"), on July 7, and it performed well on the charts – even ones he never would’ve expected.

"The first day it comes out, I’m looking, and my music director gives me a call and says, ‘Sal, we’re on the charts!’ I said, ‘I know! Number one on the jazz charts!’ And he says, ‘No, no, no – we’re on the pop charts,’" Valentinetti recalled. "I’m like get outta here. I look, and we’re two slots ahead of ‘More Life’ from Drake. It was only for two hours we were there, but just to be there was incredible.

"It was almost an affirmation that this music still holds water, still keeps it together for people."

Now, Valentinetti’s prepping to bring another great weekend – and a batch of those cherished old songs – to Festa Italiana, performing on Saturday night at 7 p.m. as well as Sunday at 8:30 p.m. Before then, I asked the New York singer about his love of the old legends, his TV appearances then – on "American Idol" and "AGT" – and now on a reality show of his own, and how doomed his diet will be on his first visit to America’s Dairyland.

OnMilwaukee: Where did your passion for these classic standard songs come from?

Sal Valentinetti: When I was very young, I was at a preschool close to my grandmother’s house, so after school, every day, I’d go by her and we’d have lunch. And then afterwards, we’d go into the kitchen, and she would put on 1100 AM, which was WHLI, The Hits Of A Lifetime. It was Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin and Dean Martin and Jerry Vale. Vic Damone was her favorite. And just listening to that music with her, it was a memory that I never wanted to forget, so when she passed away, I started listening to the music all the time.

And I really fell in love with not just the music, but the era and the class and the elegance. Just everything for me kind of clicked. I really, really fell in love with it – and I live it.

What is it about those songs that are so dearly beloved by so many decades upon decades later?

What a standard is, it’s just that: the standard of music. It’s the perfect marriage of poetry and symphony. The words are so great, the tunes are so catchy and it’s just such feel-good music that even fifty, sixty or even seventy years later, it still holds up.

Do you have a favorite performer from that old guard?

Everybody always expects me to say Frank Sinatra. And Frank Sinatra was the number one entertainer. He was the consummate entertainer, which is what I try to be: not just a singer but a showman. Every time he went out, he turned a 90-minute set into a two and a half/three hour show. It’s not just about the music; it becomes more about an evening with – and that’s what I try to give my fans.

But as far as the best voice? Mel Torme had one of the best jazz vocals next to Ella Fitzgerald, who I absolutely adore. Dean Martin’s phrasing was on point, and he was just so subtle and sultry and everything. You had Rosemary Clooney, who was so big and out there. Bobby Darin, his vibrato was just amazing and the notes he would hit? Incredible. It’s hard to pick a favorite when you absolutely love everything about it.

Even Jimmy Durante was hailed as one of the greatest of all time. If you go to Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, you see Jimmy Durante put his nose into the cement. Everybody puts their signature and their handprints. Roy Rogers has his horse’s horseshoes in the cement. And Jimmy put his face into the cement and said, "Sid, this is my schnozzle. Wish I had a million of them." Everybody in show business back then was friendly too; everybody was together and friends with each other.

I’m gonna try to bring that back – especially in Las Vegas, a town that’s really seen its day. Guys like Bruno Mars trying to bring that town back together, as far as trying to bring Hollywood back in there. There’s so so beef and this and BS and all that crap; you can keep it. Everybody was always on the same page back then; that’s another reason why it’s so hard to pick a favorite.

What was your experience on "America’s Got Talent" like?

It was incredible! You talk about something that was completely unexpected. I did "American Idol" as a goof. My uncle made me a bet; he goes, "I bet they love you so much, and if they don’t, you can use my Range Rover for the rest of the summer." I said, well, I’m going to do me, I’m going to do Sinatra, and he said, "Go ahead." That proved I couldn’t get that far – I only made it halfway through Hollywood week – but guess what, I was able to convey my personality, because I was just being me. A year later, "America’s Got Talent" saw that and said, "Wow, I think you’ll be perfect for our show."

I went down, I auditioned and went through the whole process, and I went out there basically saying the same thing: I’m going to give them me, and if they don’t like it, there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’m not gonna be too busted up about it. I ended up getting a Golden Buzzer from Heidi Klum, which was like the ultimate affirmation that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So the experience as a whole? So cool. I was able to experience cameras and sound bites and all that stuff, which was great because it was great practice for my reality show, which will hopefully come out later this year.

What’s the concept?

Just about how much my life has changed. A year ago, I’m singing in the corner of restaurants and delivering pizza. Now, you fast-forward a year later, I’m traveling the world. I had a chance in April to go to London and sing for the former CEO of Domino’s at his rugby stadium; he needed to have me because he saw me on YouTube and fell in love. Back in December, I got to sing in Jamaica – and no, not Jamaica, Queens but Jamaica the island! I went down there for a destination wedding, and it was incredible. I’ve had so many experiences in just a short time, and this is only the beginning. In a couple of days, I’ll be in Milwaukee for the first time, performing for all my fans out there. Who would think that a kid from Long Island has people in Milwaukee who want to see him?!

So the whole show is just following my crazy life now – and of course my family, who are all characters in their own right. I was so nervous when the cameras came around, I was like, "How is my family going to react?" I made myself EP (executive producer) on the show so I could decide when they start and stop filming, and I was so worried. Are they going to be OK? But talk about sound bites. They told me, "We didn’t have to repeat our questions two or three times like we usually do. Your family just speaks their mind." And I’m go, "Yeah, you didn’t know that!? They go off no matter what!" So they loved it, thank god, and hopefully by later this year, we’ll have something for the people to watch.

So this is your first time in Milwaukee?

Yes! My first time in Wisconsin!

What do you know going in?

So I know they’re open to the idea of Italians because of Vince Lombardi. So I know I’ll be alright. And I know, another thing, I stopped drinking milk a year ago because Schwarzenegger told me milk is for babies, but the one thing I can’t cut out of my diet is cheese. I love cheese, and that’s another thing I heard is pretty big up there. So I’m excited for that.

Yeah, we’ve got some outstanding cheese curds.

Oh boy … oh boy. There goes the diet for that weekend. (laughs)

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.