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Ribfest Chicago: Not Your Average Street Festival

By Tatum Bartlett | Thursday, June 10, 2010

Pile up the wet naps! The 12th annual Ribfest Chicago is about to take over the Northcenter neighborhood, kicking off on Friday, June 11, and continuing through Sunday, June 13. The highly anticipated, not-your-average street festival is much like its band lineup: as first-rate and original as it gets.

The three-day festival began in 1999 as a community block party, says Craig Lagowski of Big Buzz Idea Group, the event management firm and motivating force behind Ribfest Chicago. In fact, the first Ribfest was put on by three local businessmen in the Corus Bank (now MB Financial) parking lot at Irving Park Road and Damen Avenue.

“It was a corner lot with a couple of bands, a few kegs, and one guy selling ribs,” Lagowski says, laughing.

Oh, how things have changed. From a corner lot get-together to a full-blown street fest, Ribfest Chicago now attracts some 55,000 people and serves up a purported 65,000 pounds of ribs on the three blocks between Irving Park Road and Warner Avenue.

“Northcenter was a burgeoning neighborhood back in 1999,” Lagowski says, and Ribfest 2000, a two-day event welcoming some 10,000 people, “really helped put Northcenter back on the map.” This was the first year that the Northcenter Chamber of Commerce took over the event in an attempt to create a street festival for its residents and a fundraiser for the Chamber.

Ribfest has undeniably remained true to its premise as a “neighborhood event.” The requested $5 festival entrance donation is filtered directly back into the Northcenter community through the Chamber’s Philanthropic Committee, which allocates funds for area beautification and greening efforts, year-long programming, and community initiatives. It’s also channeled through the forward-thinking Ribfest Volunteer Grant Program, which issues funds directly to schools and charitable organizations in exchange for their assistance in providing festival volunteer staff. The three-day event relies on some 700+ volunteers, so this is undoubtedly a win-win situation for all.

“The concept of a ‘ribfest’ is often joked about in the festival crowd. It is used as a punchline of sorts,” says Lagowski. “But Ribfest Chicago is not about wide-open fields and ’70s cover bands.”

He must be right, because Ribfest Chicago has continuously been voted in the Top 10 Chicago Events by a diversity of sources. The festival is renowned for its first-class indie music lineup, featuring performers from around the country. Because of the fest dates, Ribfest Chicago is able to include performers that participate in Lollapalooza (musicians who, based on contractual language, are otherwise unable to participate in other street festivals falling after a defined date).

The ingenuity of Ribfest Chicago does not stop here. The event also boasts a dedicated children’s section deemed Kids Square,which, according to Lagowski, is the true “third component” of Ribfest. Kids Square—on the north side of Belle Plaine, between Lincoln and Damen—began as an effort to keep in touch with the needs of the community.

“Northcenter is a family-oriented neighborhood and it was important to keep this in mind when organizing the festival,” Lagowski says. “The concept not only took, but exploded!”

Kids Square features performances by tot-loving major players such as the Child’s Play Touring Theatre, Trinity Irish Dancers, and the Old Town School of Folk Music, in addition to interactive demonstrations by the Museum of Science and Industry and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Kiddie heaven comes complete with nine inflatable bouncers and mini golf. Speaking of inflatable bouncers, for those familiar with Ribfest, please note that the infamous “caterpillar” will be a no-show this year.

According to Lagowski, in past years—despite 700+ volunteers (with every one in five equipped with radio) and 24/7 security-manned gates—there was always one child reported missing. Ribfest would go into immediate lockdown, and inevitably, moments later, the child was reported to be located somewhere in the 20-foot-long inflatable caterpillar. Kids Square does request an additional $5 donation, which gets you both a spot in the drawing for a bicycle (donated by the Easy Rider Bike Shop) and a child prize pack stocked full of goodies.

This year will also feature a new attraction,new not only to Ribfest, but also to Chicago and the entire Midwest. Partnering with Major League Eating, Ribfest Chicago will feature an International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFCOE)-sanctioned rib-eating competition called “Rib-Mania” on Friday at 6 p.m. on the North Stage (4128 N. Lincoln Avenue).

This is a no-joke competition, bringing together 12 professional eaters from around the country, most notably, two Chicago-based contestants. Drawing fuel from the Crosstown Classic series, Pilsen’s Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti (ranked #4 in the world by the IFCOE) and Northcenter’s Tom “Gravy” Brown (ranked #10 by the IFOCE) are the favorites going into the competition. This could be a messy one!

Ribfest Chicago, thanks to the masterminds at Big Buzz Idea Group, has acted as a pacesetter in the festival world. From its zero-tolerance policy for festival cover bands, to its innovative giving and grant program and commitment to a family-friendly atmosphere, Ribfest Chicago is often duplicated but never fully replicated. This year’s festival is sure to continue the Northcenter tradition.

June 11, 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. | June 12-13, noon – 10 p.m. | Kids Square: June 12-13, noon – 5 p.m. For official band lineup and additional information, visit Ribfest Chicago’s official website.

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