When I was young, Taste of Chicago was a rite of passage. Not only could you try foods from Chicago’s communities, and actually see the musical performers we couldn’t afford for free (Stevie Wonder and John Mayer come to mind)… if you could drink and stack a number of colorful beer cups from the ubiquitous beer vendors, you ‘proved’ that you were once, and for all, an adult.
HOLD ON…I’m joking about the beer cups! Except about them being a rite of passage. They were.
Without Taste of Chicago, I might never have known the delicious coldness of an Original Rainbow Cone. Or the creaminess of Eli’s Cheesecake. Or the spices of authentic Jamaican Jerk Chicken. Or those giant BBQ turkey legs, which have been missing since 2010. (source: DNAInfo) I miss them!
Deep dish pizza from Giordano’s may have been as exotic as I could get in my hometown. Taste of Chicago expanded my palate at very low prices, all while listening to the best music of the day.
Beginnings-One Steamy Day on Michigan Avenue
The first Taste of Chicago took place on July 4, 1980, on Michigan Avenue, aka ‘The Magnificent Mile.’ It came about after restauranteur Arnie Morton persuaded then-Chicago mayor Jane Byrne and Lois Weisberg, Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, to block it off for the holiday. Over 250,000 people attended (nearly tripling all expectations), sampling hot dogs, ribs, and Italian ice. Food and soda sales grossing $300,000, as Wikipedia sources note. Taste of Chicago far exceeded any expectations the City of Chicago had.
According to DNAInfo.com, the original vendors included Aunt Diana’s Old Fashioned Fudge, Fireplace Inn, Gaylord India, Guey Lon, Lawry’s The Prime Rib, Leon’s BBQ, Nancy’s Pizza and the Pump Room.
And Just Like That…
In the following decades, the restaurant selections grew from 10 to 70. DNAInfo says that Sam ‘Chizborger, chizborger’ Sianis, of Billy Goat Tavern, didn’t have a booth the first year, but when they moved The Taste to Grant Park, his booth became a staple.
Mayor Byrne and Commissioner Weisberg knew they were on to something. In the years prior to The Taste, Chicagofest had brought Chicago’s communities together at Navy Pier in a celebration of all forms of music—jazz, pop, heavy metal, soul, and r&b. Even Frank Sinatra made an appearance! Now, they combined the two festivals into one large music and food extravaganza. The fest grew from one day to more than 10 in the 90’s and 00’s.
For the next three decades, the fest grew in worldwide popularity, as Chicago’s unique restaurant culture came to fruition with several Michelin-starred, James Beard award-winning restaurants joined erstwhile favorites like Gene & Georgetti’s.
According to a Chicago Tribune article, in 1997, a record 3.46 million people spent $12 million, munching on 272,000 slices of pizza, 253,405 ears of corn, 117,000 frozen bananas, 31,000 lobster tails and 15,000 stuffed artichokes. In 1999, the record was broken again, as 3.68 million attended.
The pandemic, waning attendance, and concerns about cost-effectiveness among the vendors necessitated several changes to The Taste. While it’s still the largest food and music festival in the world, TimeOut Chicago noted that the 2023 edition will feature smaller, day-long festivals in neighborhoods across the city, with a lineup of local restaurants and live music.
Entry to all Taste of Chicago events is still free, and vendors will accept cash and credit cards.
Taste of Chicago-Humbolt Park this weekend!
The single-day Taste of Chicago events will be held:
- Saturday, June 24 in Humboldt Park, 1440 N. Humboldt Boulevard, from 11am-9pm
Vendors include African Food Palace, Banato, Chicago’s Doghouse, El Azteca Sanchez, Robinson No.1 Ribs, and Tandoor Char. Chicago House Music Festival performers include “Queen! For A Day” featuring Robert Owen’s Live, with Michael Serafini and Garret David.
- Saturday, July 15 in Pullman Park 11101 S. Cottage Grove
- Saturday, August 5 in Chicago Lawn, Marquette Park, 6743 S. Kedzie Avenue
Taste of Chicago 2023 concludes with a three-day festival in Grant Park from September 8-10, where you’ll find a variety of food vendors in addition to live entertainment. Keep your eyes on this website for announcements about food vendors and music lineups!
Enjoy The Taste This Summer!
Alison Moran-Powers and Dean’s Team Chicago