Taste of Chicago may be shorter this year, but organizers promise that what the 32nd annual feastival lacks in days will be offset by exciting features as they attempt to lure crowds back to its tables.
"People have stopped coming to Taste partially because everybody has been there, done that," said Taste manager Mary Slowik. Shortened from 10 to five days, 2012's festival runs July 11 to 15 in Grant Park.
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Taste of ChicagoHours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. July 11 to 15
Location: Grant Park, 337 E. Randolph St., Chicago, (312) 744-3316 or tasteofchicago.us
Food tickets: Strips of 12 tickets cost $8 on site; get 12 tickets for $7 at participating Dominick's through July 10.
"This year we're adding experiences that are hard to come by," Slowik said.
One such feature, the new Celebrity Chef du Jour programs, proved so popular that three of the events sold out in June. Each day features a $40 three-course meal from a different notable chef, with the lineup including Stephanie Izard of Girl and the Goat and Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia. Held in an air-conditioned tent, the dinners are limited to 150 people. The chefs also will offer a cooking demonstration and will make some of their signature items available to all attendees.
"Chicago is known as a mecca for great restaurants," Slowik said. "We wanted to capitalize on that more than we have in the past. There are absolutely Taste of Chicago dishes that people come for every year -- the pizza, the ribs, the cheesecake -- but we wanted to go a little more into the fine dining element as well."
This year's fest will also be better for weight-conscious patrons. Humana of Illinois compiles a list of healthy options for the fest each year, and medical director Dr. Fredrik Tolin said this year 27 items -- the most ever -- met the group's criteria. This also will be the first year Taste hosts the Humana Wellbeing Tour, where visitors can get biometric screenings and learn more about healthy living.
Other changes, however, have been more controversial. While you can still see the fest's headliners for free on the lawn, you'll pay $25 for a seat at the Petrillo Music Shell.
"We wanted to offer an additional opportunity for people to get a seat," Slowik said. "We really have some great headliners this year that we think people are willing to pay for, and it's an additional way for us to make some revenue."
The number of restaurants participating has been pared down to 39 from 59 in 2011.
"Some of the comments that we received was its too big, its so crowded," Slowik said. "We're using the same footprint, but we're making it roomier for people because we're reducing the number of restaurants."
Organizers gave restaurants a new way to participate and attendees a reason to come multiple days in their new pop-up program. Fifteen restaurants will operate booths for just one of the five days. That option was perfect for Café Gelato owner Vincent Geraci.
"This being one of the first festivals we're getting involved in, we decided to do one day so that we get a nice feel for it, so for following years we can get involved for all five days," he said. "Being a pop-up is great for small businesses wanting to push their product out there."
Other restaurants are more uncertain. This is Texas de Brazil's second year at the fest, and special services manager Alicia Rocha said she worries that they'll see fewer tourists because the event doesn't fall over the Fourth of July holiday. She said that she's also heard complaints from more veteran Taste vendors about the shortened length. The restaurant will weigh the costs against the returns at this year's event and decide whether to do Taste again, but she said last year's fest proved to be a great marketing opportunity.
"We didn't know what to expect, but it was very rewarding for us," Rocha said. "We realized how many people come into the city and have never heard of us."