Thousands Chow Down At Taste Of Chicago's First Day

Lisa Fielding
July 11, 2018 - 4:18 pm

WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding


CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- The deep fryers and grills are on overdrive as 72 vendors set up shop up and down Columbus and Jackson.

"I'm making Caribbean Jerk Chicken from Belize," said Alfred Ashby with Garifuna Flavor, which is spending its 10th year at Taste of Chicago.

"We have a special season we put on it -- jerk sauce, peppers -- and we marinate it overnight, then we start cooking," he said.

Ashby estimates he goes through 1,000 pounds of chicken a day.

From jerk chicken to cheeseburgers to deep dish pizza to giant turkey legs to Italian Beef, there are 300 menu items up for grabs this year.

"Everything from tacos, turkey legs, pirogues, traditional beef sandwiches, we're really excited that Original Rainbow Cones made it back. We have a mix of traditional Chicago fare, Eli's Cheesecake as well as some newcomers like Warm Belly Bakery," Taste of Chicago Coordinator Neil Heitz said.

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Taste has become a summertime staple and it just keeps growing from year to year, he said.

"Out of 72 vendors, 25 are new, so this is a tremendous growth for the Taste Of Chicago. Twenty-five new vendors in one year is really a tremendous opportunity for us to showcase Chicago's wonderful, diverse culinary scene," Heitz said. "We even have two James Beard award winners here."

Other restaurants have been at the Taste for several years. Ricobene’s has been with the festival for 30 years, owner Sam Ricobene said.

"It takes a lot of prep at the restaurant and then setting up a mobile kitchen under a tent," he said, laughing.

Ricobene's sells about 5,000 breaded steak sandwiches a day.

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"It's a thin steak, breaded, deep fried, smothered in red sauce put on French bread. It's what we're famous for," Ricobene said. "It's unique to the South Side. It's not something a lot of people make.”

There are several new attractions this year, including the Taste Oasis for those trying to get away from the heat and humidity.

"The Oasis is an air-conditioned lounge where you can seek reprieve. We have DJ's playing music, complimentary water, cocktails being served inside that aren't being offered outside. Passes are available from $25 to $50,” Heitz said.

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He says there are several regular activities during the course of the event: “The march of the puppets will be happening each day at 3 p.m. Summer Dance takes place on the east end of Buckingham Fountain. Every day, we have different dancing genres of music. Chicago Film Archives are running old home videos on the big screen in Butler Field.”

The five-day food festival at Grant Park (between Lake Shore Drive, Monroe Street, Michigan Avenue and Balbo Drive) runs through Sunday, July 15.

Admission is free, but general admission for performances at the Petrillo Music Shell range from $18 to $50.

The Taste moved to a five-day format in 2012. Since then, Heitz says it's become even more successful.

WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

"As the Taste evolves, it allows us to invite new restaurants. Five days was more palatable for restaurants and food trucks. Evolution of the Taste of Chicago has really allowed us to grow."

Last year, 1.6 million people visited the five-day event, which set a new record. Heitz predicts another record set for 2018.

"It's an event for all of your senses. We're throwing the biggest party in Chicago,” he said.

WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding