'You look at the plate and think ... oh my gosh': Gutsy food challenges await at suburban eateries

The Big Joe Challenge at Suzy's Swirl has more than a little heart to it.

At face value it's simply 64 ounces of frozen yogurt, plus 8 ounces of toppings, that must be consumed in 20 minutes or less. But it's also a tribute to Joe Tierno, who died unexpectedly in 2011 just months before he and his family planned to open Suzy's Swirl in Lake Bluff.

The Big Joe Challenge is one of many food challenges in the suburbs. From humongous burritos to immense burgers, restaurants throughout the area have plenty of options for brave folks who want to test their appetites.

Mary Therese Williams, center, and her family put in quite an effort but couldn't defeat the Big Joe Challenge at Suzy's Swirl in Lake Bluff. Courtesy of Suzy's Swirl

Tierno's wife, Sue, and her sister, Kathleen Wood, carried on and opened Suzy's Swirl in 2012. They added a second location in Lake Forest and created the Big Joe Challenge to raise money in Joe's honor.

Finish the titanic treat in time, and it's free with the bonus of a T-shirt and a picture on the wall of fame. Fail, and a $20 donation is requested for the American Heart Association.

Wood estimates about 300 people have taken on the Big Joe Challenge, with only about 30 successfully completing it. In a special weekend event earlier this year, Wood says Suzy's Swirl raised $3,500 for the American Heart Association.

Wood sees the challenge as a great way for customers to have fun while keeping Joe's legacy alive and helping out a great cause.

"We wanted to always have a way to honor Joe's spirit and do it in a fun way, but with a purpose," Wood said. "We've had all these wonderful people and families come in and help us raise money."

For those who prefer savory challenges, choices abound.

Fat Rosie's Taco & Tequila Bar, with locations in Schaumburg, Lincolnshire, Naperville and Frankfort, boasts the El Patron Gordo Burrito.

Workers at Fat Rosie's put together the El Patron Gordo Burrito, a 3-pound feast that's free if eaten in 12 minutes or less. Courtesy of Fat Rosie's

Take down the "larger than life" 3-pound burrito - filled with grilled streak, rice, beans, cheese, lettuce, pico de gallo, sour cream, fiery habanero sauce and a side of rice and beans - in 12 minutes or less, and the $36 meal is free.

You also get a T-shirt and free dessert, although, let's be honest, the treat is likely for the rest of the table.

Jason Garcia, Fat Rosie's Director of Operations, said he's never seen anyone defeat the burrito, but plenty have tried. Created in 2016, it's always an event worth watching.

"Hearing from my four general managers, it's about one percent of people who finish it in time," said Garcia, who estimated about five people per week attempt it at each restaurant. "You look at the plate and think ... oh my gosh. I don't see how anyone is able to finish it.

"It's a great way to bring people in," he said. "We make a show out of it and create that buzz around it."

Fat Rosie's 3-pound El Patron Gordo Burrito is stuffed with grilled steak, rice, beans, lettuce, pico de gallo, sour cream and a flaming-hot habanero sauce. Courtesy of Fat Rosie's

Not to be outdone, Timothy O'Toole's Pub - with locations in Chicago, Gurnee, Lake Villa and Libertyville - offers the Big Timmy Challenge, which was featured on the Travel Channel show "Man v. Food."

In 30 minutes, the challenger must finish an intimidating burger with two half-pound patties, cheddar, jalapeƱo jack, mozzarella and Swiss cheese, bacon, fried onion strings, barbecue sauce, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and red onion. And don't forget the side order of almost two pounds of Irish nachos.

Everyone pays $25 for the burger, but conquer it and you get a T-shirt to wear and brag about the accomplishment.

"We've got at least 10 to 15 people a week trying it," said Nicole Elliott, general manager of the Timothy O'Toole's location in Gurnee. "People enjoy food, and they get a little bit more excited when you put a competitive twist on it."

Whether it's The Joe, The Timmy, El Patron or any of the other local food challenges out there, glory awaits.

But only for the gutsy.

"People come in thinking they want to try it, and then they see it and maybe think twice," Wood said. "But some people just come in and crush it."

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