Jennifer Chamberlain of Palatine scored something of a daily double at Arlington Park on Wednesday. She won $60 on the 10th race -- and she persuaded a group of friends to join her at the 18th annual Chefs' Fest.
"It's a great girls' night out," Chamberlain declared as she polished off a fish taco from Sam & Harry's Steakhouse, located at the Renaissance Hotel in Schaumburg.
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In all, nearly 40 restaurants were featured at this year's fest, sponsored by the Greater Woodfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, and officials expected to draw more than 1,000 patrons.
But what separated the event from past editions was the chance to combine thoroughbred racing with sampling signature entrees.
"I thought, as long as we're here, we might as well place a bet," Chamberlain said. "And I won."
Chefs' Fest opened just after the ninth race finished, drawing racing fans as well as restaurant patrons.
"It's a good way to find new restaurants," said Andrea Lucenti of Bloomingdale. "Otherwise, you're just taking a shot in the dark."
Diane Wojciechowski of Roselle knew to come early to sample the beef tenderloin sandwiches from Ruth's Chris Steak House in South Barrington, but she also wanted to make the rounds and sample other dishes.
"It gives you ideas of what's new and different," Wojciechowski said.
One of the newer eateries on hand, Impecca Restaurant in Roselle, served up its most popular dish of penne pasta with a tomato cream sauce and crumbled Italian sausage.
Co-owner John Gianforte said his customers mostly want comfort food, and at Impecca's, that means pasta.
"We're a neighborhood diner," Gianforte said. "People want downtown-styled dining without going downtown."
Chef Jean Luis Gonzales of Mago, which opened last year in Arlington Heights, said he looks for foods that are organically grown and naturally raised when planning his menus, and his customers appreciate that.
"With summer coming, I'll use lots of asparagus and feature chilled mango salsa," Gonzales said. "I'm also going to bring in soft shelled crab into the restaurant. They're only in season for two months during the summer."
At Sam & Harry's in Schaumburg, chefs introduced the fish tacos -- filled with blackened tilapia and marbled cabbage, drizzled in a spicy salsa -- in their new terrace menu.
"It's summer, so we were looking for something lighter and refreshing," said sous chef Jesus Medina. "This time of year, people are looking for lighter, healthier foods."
Woodfield Convention Bureau President Dave Parulo said that holding the fest during a racing day confined it to the racecourse concourse, but it didn't reflect any less enthusiasm from the patrons -- or the restaurants -- he said.
"We had lots of interest from the restaurants in participating," Parulo said. "They see it as a prime chance to market themselves and their signature dishes."