Naperville Ribfest: Rib judging isn't easy, reporter concludes

Naperville Exchange Club's Ribfest has been an annual summer tradition for me since the early 1990s.

So when I was asked if I wanted to be a Ribfest judge this year, I happily agreed without thinking about it.

Then I actually thought about it. I soon started feeling a bit intimidated.

Sure, I've feasted on countless ribs in my life. I'm also the target audience for all those barbecue shows on TV.

But in my personal experience, I have come to believe that there's no such thing as bad ribs at Ribfest - only different categories of good.

Still, there I was on Sunday morning in the sponsors' tent at Knoch Park with the opportunity to judge 12 ribs and 12 sauces from professional barbecue vendors.

Fortunately, Dave Harrington, the official rib judge, told me that judging is a like taking a quiz where there are no wrong answers.

"It's personal preference," he said.

As I waited for the event to begin, I got some tips from veteran judges, including Tom Belgio of Belgio's Catering in Naperville.

"Pace yourself," Belgio said. "Even though it's really good, you don't need to eat the whole thing."

George Pradel, Naperville's mayor emeritus, gave the same advice.

"When you get the rib, all you have to do is smell it, look at it for the texture, take a bite and then make your decision," Pradel said.

Current Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico prefers a different strategy. "I eat it all," he said.

Fearing that I would pass out after eating too much, I opted for Pradel's method.

During the judging, we were asked to rate the ribs based on appearance, taste and tenderness.

I don't know what good ribs are supposed to look like. All the ones I tried looked fine to me.

But I found differences when it came to taste and tenderness.

I like when the pork is smoky, sweet and falling off the bone. Ribs meeting that standard scored high with me. I deducted points if the meat was too dry or needed more sauce.

The confidence I gained judging the ribs disappeared when it came to picking sauces. All were tasty, though I tended to score the sweeter sauces higher.

By the end of the two hours, I was grateful I'm not a food critic.

Uncle Bub's won for both best ribs and best sauce. Desperado's won the kids' choice award. And my favorite, Porky 'N' Beans, won the Exchange Club 30th Anniversary Award.

As for me, I went right back to Ribfest on Sunday night. The plan was to get a hot dog.

  Judging for the best ribs, best sauce and kids choice contests took place Sunday at the 30th annual Ribfest in Naperville. Mark Black/
  Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico samples one of 12 different ribs Sunday, as one of the 2017 Ribfest judges. Mark Black/
  Judy McCormack, Naperville Exchange Club president-elect, shows off the ribs for presentation judging during the rib contest Sunday at the 30th annual Ribfest. Mark Black/
  Daily Herald reporter Robert Sanchez takes the "Ribfest Oath" before he begins judging Sunday at the 30th annual Ribfest in Naperville. Mark Black/
  Lukas Carlson, 9, of Naperville takes his role as a Ribfest judge seriously Sunday. Mark Black/
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.