A final year in Naperville's Knoch Park: Ribfest organizers reflect on three decades

  • The tables are set for Ribfest's final run in Knoch Park in Naperville, where it's been for 31 years.

      The tables are set for Ribfest's final run in Knoch Park in Naperville, where it's been for 31 years. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • The Exchange Club of Naperville's Ribfest will run at Knoch Park from noon to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday with 11 traveling rib vendors, a carnival, kids activities, business booths, concerts and Fourth of July fireworks.

    The Exchange Club of Naperville's Ribfest will run at Knoch Park from noon to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday with 11 traveling rib vendors, a carnival, kids activities, business booths, concerts and Fourth of July fireworks. Daily Herald file photo

  • The Exchange Club of Naperville's Ribfest will run at Knoch Park from noon to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday with 11 traveling rib vendors, a carnival, kids activities, business booths, concerts and Fourth of July fireworks.

    The Exchange Club of Naperville's Ribfest will run at Knoch Park from noon to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday with 11 traveling rib vendors, a carnival, kids activities, business booths, concerts and Fourth of July fireworks. Daily Herald file photo

  • The main stage is set up as Ribfest prepares for its final season in Knoch Park in Naperville.

      The main stage is set up as Ribfest prepares for its final season in Knoch Park in Naperville. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Singer Brandi Thompson of Brandi & the Alexanders, a Naperville native and Waubonsie Valley High School graduate, is about to live out her childhood dream of performing at the Exchange Club of Naperville's Ribfest. Her band's set is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday on the south stage.

    Singer Brandi Thompson of Brandi & the Alexanders, a Naperville native and Waubonsie Valley High School graduate, is about to live out her childhood dream of performing at the Exchange Club of Naperville's Ribfest. Her band's set is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday on the south stage. Courtesy of Sharon Radisch

 
 
Updated 7/3/2019 11:07 AM

Ribfest.

For agents for many popular musical acts, the name sounds like something "below the county fair," said Rick Grimes, the Naperville event's executive director.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It doesn't convey what it has become over the past 31 years: a four-day festival in Knoch Park downtown with professional stages, skybox seating, crowds of tens of thousands and a charitable cause to help combat child abuse and domestic violence.

"Outside of Chicago, we're the biggest festival there is in the suburbs, and we attract the best talent," Grimes said.

When Ribfest makes a pitch to an artist -- say Billy Idol, who's the opening night headliner on Wednesday -- Grimes said the offer is typically in competition with a contract from Ravinia Festival in Highland Park or Milwaukee's Summerfest or the Country LakeShake in Chicago.

"We're playing with the big boys," Grimes said.

As Exchange Club of Naperville members prepare for their final Ribfest in Knoch Park -- the park will be undergoing renovations later this month -- they say they're hoping to maintain that reputation among concert promoters and the public as a performance destination.

This year's performers include KC and the Sunshine Band ('70s disco and funk), Flo Rida (2000s rap), Brantley Gilbert (2000s country) and Bad Company (1970s rock), not to mention Chicago 6, with members of the 1985 Bears playing Motown, classic rock, country and parodies.

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Ribfest runs noon to 10 p.m. July 3-6, with $5 admission to the south part of the park -- where 11 traveling rib vendors will set up booths for barbecue. Concert admission ranges from $30 to $250.

When the gates close Saturday on the "Last Nights at Knoch," the event will be on its way to a new site. Organizers are in negotiations to move in 2020 to Romeoville's municipal campus, 1050 W. Romeo Road. No formal announcement has been made, but it's likely coming.

"It's not about the move," Grimes said of this year's party. "It's about our last Ribfest in Knoch Park."

As the final fest at the longtime site approaches, a performer, a volunteer and two organizers share their memories and look ahead.

Fan to performer

Brandi Thompson's Ribfest experience is typical -- in the best way.

Grew up in Naperville. Attended the fest every summer. Ate the ribs. Walked the grounds. Heard the shows. Looks back on it fondly.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It's in my memory as a great place to listen to music and hang out with your friends," said Thompson, now the lead singer of a New York City-based band called Brandi & the Alexanders. "That's the thing in Naperville. Everybody knows Ribfest."

Last year, as Thompson's rock and soul band signed to Red Parlor Records, the Waubonsie Valley High School flutist and choir member admitted a longtime goal: to perform on the Ribfest stage.

"That would be like my dream come true," she said.

Thompson's dream is set to play out at 6:30 p.m. on the Fourth of July. She and bandmates Eric Gottlieb, Nick Fokas, Ethan Simon and Eric Wendell snagged the final slot organizers had left.

"I'm honored to have the chance to do it," she said. "When I told my family and friends, they're all like, 'I'm flying out to come to see it!'"

Building a team

Kim White runs the Community Career Center in Naperville, one of more than 50 organizations tied to ending child abuse and domestic violence that has received a share of the more than $17.5 million Ribfest has raised.

Organizations like hers often bring volunteers to staff beverage tents or ticket gates, to shuttle ribs from vendors to sponsor tents or to clean up.

When White signs up 40 to 50 people each year, she makes sure to include clients, who come to the center seeking help with employment.

"We deal with clients who are in a job search, and so often because of that, they no longer have that camaraderie with that team at work to do things with," White said. "We make them feel like they're part of a team, even if it's just for one day."

The career center team this year will staff a beverage tent on two nights.

White said she'll miss Ribfest being "a Naperville event." But she's comforted that organizers say they'll continue to support the career center and organizations like it.

Planning, growth

Longtime members of the Exchange Club know it's the end of an era, so they can't help but look back.

Emy Trotz volunteered with Ribfest during its first -- and only -- year on Rotary Hill in 1988. Grimes said the weather was rainy, the hill was messy and the fundraising was small.

"We made enough money to probably donate four new tires for some charity's van," he said. "But we learned a lot."

By the time Trotz joined the club in 1992, the event was establishing itself in Knoch Park, where she has helped coordinate vendors, manage the sponsor tents, attract family entertainment and clear the way for main stage talent.

For Grimes, a charter member of the club, the progression has been much the same. He said he'll miss the grassy expanse of Knoch Park.

"It's very much a melancholy feel because I've grown up on that field," Grimes said.

Growing -- in the charitable sense -- has been the bulk of the work. By reminding corporate sponsors of the charitable destination of Ribfest proceeds, Grimes said club members have expanded the donation total over the years. "Grand Sponsors" include Meijer, Navistar, Jewel Osco, Jeep, Xfinity, Coca-Cola and Miller Lite, to name a few.

"The idea is if you're giving us $5 because you're getting your name out," Grimes said, "give us $5 because it's a great cause."

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