This past weekend was Chicago’s North Center Neighborhood’s 16th annual Ribfest. Ribfest is one of Chicago’s largest, most popular street fests during the summer… and for good reason. Delicious, delicious ribs, slathered in even more delicious BBQ sauce that stretches for what seems like forever. That may sound like the most amazing thing in the world… and it is, but with the sheer amount of people there, it was almost impossible to walk through the street or get food.

We arrived at Ribfest around 2PM with the dog, which may have been a mistake because of all the people, but if you walk on the sidewalk it wasn’t bad. We immediately made our way north towards where there were picnic tables to sit at. After hovering for a bit, Celeste managed to snake a table and a couple chairs for the people that were coming to meet us later. Once we knew we had a place to sit and eat we took turns getting up to get food so that we didn’t lose our table.

Celeste opted for a pulled pork sandwich from Browntrout which looked pretty amazing. I didn’t try the actual sandwhich, but I did try a bit of the pulled pork itself. I don’t really like when places put coleslaw right on their pulled pork sandwiches, so Browntrout would not have gotten a “Pass” in my book, but without the coleslaw I’d definitely order the sandwich. Later in the evening she also got a 3-rib sampler from Smokin’ Woody’s BBQ, which we’ve still yet to go to despite the recommendations from a friend. She thought they were just alright, not better than the Big Bricks ribs she’d had in the past. However, it’s hard to compare the ribs at the festival to the ribs you get at the restaurant because, well, it’s not the restaurant. So we’ll definitely hit up Smokin’ Woody’s at some point in the near future to make a fair assessment of the food.

As far as ribs go, I had to go with old faithful and support my favorite BBQ place in the city, Big Bricks. I know most people don’t think of Big Bricks when they think of BBQ, but they are still, far and away, my favorite rib place in the city. Their ribs are actually the reason I’ve started to eat more ribs. I actually didn’t really care for ribs growing up for some reason and even when we went to Ribfest 2 years ago, I got pulled pork and not ribs, but Big Bricks totally changed my mind on ribs and they are still my favorite. I actually regret not getting a half slab instead of the sampler, but I wanted to be able to try at least one other restaurant’s ribs… since that’s the whole point of the fest. And I did get to try another…

BBQ King Smokehouse was my 2nd stop on my rib tour and only because it was convenient. By the time 6 o’clock rolled around the place was insanely crowded. It was nearly impossible to get down the main stretch of the street so I opted to just go to the closest vendor to get another sampler. Plus at this point the temperature dropped and you could tell it was going to start raining at any moment, so I had to eat quick. BBQ King Smokehouse isn’t located in the city, but rather out in Woodstock, IL. I think next time we’re out that way with family, I may have to pick me up some ribs, cause they were pretty solid. I’d still rate Big Bricks ribs better, but I did like the sauce at BBQ King Smokehouse a bit more. Big Bricks sauce is a bit spicier than I’m used to, yet still good, while BBQ King Smokehouse had a sweeter sauce that I enjoyed quite a bit. When it comes to ribs it’s just as much about the sauce as it is the ribs themselves. We went to a restaurant up in Union Pier, Michigan for a wedding last weekend and ate at the Red Arrow Roadhouse, which is apparently known for their ribs, so that’s what I got. Upon receiving said ribs, the ribs themselves were pretty good, however the BBQ sauce they used appeared to just be Open Pit BBQ sauce that you can get at the grocery store. Don’t get me wrong, Open Pit isn’t terrible, but if you’re known for your ribs, I would expect something a little different. And maybe it was and I’m just crazy, but it had the very distinct red color and a very similar taste. I guess it could have been Open Pit with additional ingredients, but who knows. They were still delicious and I’d definitely eat them again, but you gotta have a unique sauce when it comes to ribs.

Overall Ribfest was a success and we had a great time. The weather Saturday during the day was awesome, but took a turn for the worse around 6PM and we shot over to Brownstone for a few drinks to cap off the night. The winners of Ribfest were announced Sunday night and I can’t disagree with them because I only got to try 2 vendors, but BBQ King Smokehouse did come in 2nd in the celebrity judging, so that’s good, however Big Bricks didn’t even place… sad. My only other complaint about the Chicago North Center Ribfest is the amount of people. It’s awesome that it’s so popular, because it means that this will be a street fest for years to come, but at the same time, it makes it impossible to get food or to walk anywhere. Thankfully we found a table and just took it over for a few hours. We’ll see how the other fests throughout the summer stack up, but it might be hard to beat this one.

2 Responses

  1. Hi Tom – great piece, glad you enjoyed yourself at Ribfest Chicago 2014. We hope to see you this year for the new and improved version! The 17th annual will see a couple changes to alleviate crowds.

    Fact is, we were expecting the 50k-55k that we’d gotten from 2009-2013. We didn’t think the fest could grow, and couldn’t imagine a 24% increase to 70,000+. (It helps a ton that we were featured on Food Network all weekend, but it was a secret—we couldn’t mention it.)

    Anyway, as the event producer, we rely on traffic flow and ease of movement on the sidewalks…which was completely overrun by the mobs.

    So to alleviate these issues for 2015, we’re experimenting: we’re reducing the number of Market Vendors by half, AND we’re placing the majority of them on the side streets rather than the main route on Lincoln. So rather than have entire blocks of side-by-side Food and Market Vendor booths, we’ll have Food Vendors (and some sponsor booths), and plenty of open space to be used for hanging out.

    This will open up the center of the street where people tend to hang. We move them curb-side to open up the center for better flow, which in turn should reduce the need for people to jam the sidewalks to move around.

    We’re pumped. And we’re ready for another 70,000 people. Not sure what we’ll do if there is any further growth surprises…We’re the only company that counts heads at the gate (by our off-duty CPD officers), so we’ll know how many come in this year in order to further tweak for next year.

    Again, hope to see you there. Just ask for Craig.


    Craig Lagowski
    Project Coordinator
    Big Buzz Idea Group

    1. Craig, just saw this comment now, have a newborn at home, so unfortunately this site has suffered a bit in the past few months, and that’s also the reason we weren’t able to make it to ribfest this year; I was worried about the crowds and a 2 month old. But we’re hoping to make it back next year once she’s a little older.

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