The International Festival of Raleigh was established in 1985 by the City of Raleigh through the Sister Cities Association of Raleigh to promote respect and increased understanding among people of diverse origins. The purpose of the project was to develop an awareness of the many cultures that make up our community; strengthen friendships and understanding among people of different cultures; share the uniqueness of each heritage through music, food, dance, and exhibits; and promote the quality of life in Raleigh.
In 1987, the International Festival organization restructured to provide a more solid operational platform for the large event. The resulting independent non-profit organization was named International Focus, Inc., and utilized policy procedures, bylaws, and a Board of Directors. An Executive Director was hired in 1988 and the International Focus office opened in 1989.
A Naturalization Ceremony and voter registration of new citizens became part of the Festival in 1988 with the help of the Woman's Club of Raleigh. The Ceremony continues to be the grand opening of the Festival each year in cooperation with Superior Court Judge Britt and the Durham Office of Homeland Security. Approximately 250 new Americans are naturalized annually.
Through the years, the Festival has greatly expanded its venues and doubled ethnic participation. Ethnic groups, that were formed specifically to participate in the Festival, now have their own organizations numbering thousands of members, and stage their own annual celebrations. Cultural dance groups that started with a few people coming together to preserve their heritage are now professional groups that perform across the United States. Additionally, a number of local ethnic restaurants had their beginnings at the Festival Sidewalk Cafés. Despite their own growth, the area's ethnic groups remain loyal to International Focus, and continue to generously volunteer their time and talents to the festival as well as other events throughout the year.
In 2008, the International Festival returned to downtown Raleigh to help celebrate the grand opening of the new Raleigh Convention Center, which remains its venue each October.