05/15/2011 at 11:15 AM EDT
It rained on Haley Reinhart's parade, but that couldn't dampen the enthusiasm for the American Idol
finalist's hometown visit on Saturday.
Returning to an unseasonably cold and unrelentingly rainy Wheeling, Ill., Reinhart remained upbeat and grateful, tearing up at nearly every stop as hundreds, sometimes thousands, of sign-waving, clapping, screaming fans lined a parade route and cheered her on throughout the day.
"I feel a sense of such appreciation," Reinhart told PEOPLE, "So I feel like I've already won."
Her visit was a whirlwind of activity throughout the Chicago area, including stops at the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower; an AT&T store where she got a new phone with a message that she would be singing Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" on next week's show; the swimming pool where she used to work; and Wheeling High School.
She told students she hoped her journey to the top inspired them "to do exactly what you want to do in life," and also invited her old band director to Idol's finale ("I gotta talk to my bosses, but yes," said Brian Logan).
Her day wrapped up at Arlington Park Racetrack, where a crowd of almost 30,000 people rocked out as she sang five songs, backed by her 15-year-old sister on bass and her parents' band.
Her father, Harry Reinhart, said he's been impressed by his daughter's singing prowess and ability to withstand some rough moments. "I knew she was a toughie, but I didn't know just how tough she was," he said.
Reinhart was among the three Idol
finalists making homecoming tours this weekend. Lauren Alaina went back
to Rossville, Ga., and Scotty McCree returned
to Garner, N.C.