Naperville Exchange Club's 26th annual Ribfest opened Wednesday in Knoch Park to high hopes of tasty barbecue, great bands, pleasant weather and plenty of proceeds raised for charities chosen for their work to end child abuse and domestic violence.
Leading the show was Ribfest Chairman Marty Walker, a busy man on opening night balancing duties of addressing Internet access problems at ticket-selling booths or last-minute signage needs with greeting longtime rib vendors and even sneaking a barbecued bite or two for himself.
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From hungry suburbanites craving ribs, to die-hard Styx fans from out-of-state, to teens spending a preholiday night with friends, those in the Ribfest crowd all came seeking entertainment.
The fest continues from noon to 10 p.m. Thursday to Sunday, giving plenty more chances to watch fireworks, rock out to big-name bands, and nosh on ribs, ribs and more ribs.
Staking a spot
Melony Birt of Tulsa, Okla. was the official spot-saver for her family as she waited more than an hour to claim the first position in line at the east gate on Martin Avenue. Birt's family of four dedicated Styx fans made the trip specifically to see the band headline Ribfest's opening night.
"This is what my 4-year-old chose for her birthday party," Birt said about Thursday's headlining concert, which would be daughter Olivia's second Styx show. "We traveled almost 700 miles, so we needed to be first."
So many options
Kayla Reyes of Plainfield and Jeremy Pass of Chicago froze when they got to the L-shaped line of 13 rib vendors. Smartphones in hand, they snapped photos of the colorful display of banners hyping the "best ribs" and "best sauce" awards each vendor has won from rib fests across the country.
Looking to get food first, then explore the rest of Ribfest, Reyes and Pass scanned the menus looking for classic barbecue with a good flavor, but not too much kick.
"I haven't had ribs in years," Pass said.
"And this is the place for that," Reyes said.
Singin' at the grill
Hawking ribs was a lyrical process for the man behind the ribs at Desperado's BBQ Rib Co. of Cleveland, Ohio -- grillmaster and marketing manager Edward Jacobs, known by some as "Big Ed."
"This is how we do it," Jacobs crooned to the tune of R&B singer Montell Jordan's song by the same name.
Then he switched into advertising mode.
"Come on in here," he encouraged the building crowd less than an hour after Ribfest opened its gates to a hungry public. "Do you want good ribs or great ribs? We've got great ribs!"
Three steps to beer
Buying a beer or wine cooler at Ribfest became a multi-step process this year, as organizers introduced a beverage ticket system to replace cash or credit alcohol purchases. Volunteers from a ticket sellers union in Chicago staffed one of several beverage ticket booths, where a strip of 10 tickets sells for $10.
Things went smoothly, volunteers said, but they got one common question -- where are the wristbands?
In order to buy an alcoholic drink, patrons must buy a strip of tickets, then show ID to get a wristband at a beverage tent and hand over five or six dollars worth of tickets. Then, cheers!
Two of 13 rib vendors -- Uncle Bub's BBQ of Westmont and Robinson's Ribs of Oak Park -- didn't have to travel far to set up a boot.
Ten years into selling his signature ribs to Knoch Park visitors, Uncle Bub's owner Mark Link says it's still an exciting experience.
"When I was a kid, I used to come here and it was a dream of mine to be part of Naperville's Ribfest," Link said.
"This is the baby right here. It's the original one," he said, adding his crew attends rib festivals each summer in Arizona, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska and Nevada.
The flavor comes in phases, as Link's cooks first spray racks of ribs with lemon juice to open up the pores of the meat. Step two involves sprinkling the ribs with a rub and kneading it in. Then the meat sits for a few hours before entering the smoker and being grilled to perfection, Link said.
"I like to have them fall off the bone a little bit," he said. "I like to be more on the tender side."
Fun all night
Groups of teenage friends like Naperville residents Nina Barzyk, 13, Payton Arnold, 13 and Anna Clark, 14, were among those planning to make a night out of Ribfest, which ran from 4 to 10 p.m.
In the kids area, they each took a turn riding a mechanical bull and said they planned to check out carnival rides like the high-swinging boat "Pharoh's Fury."
With four more days to enjoy the fest, the girls said some ribs and more time with friends are in the forecast.