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Sun, sweat and smiles abound as Taste of Chicago opens

The Taste of Chicago kicked off in Grant Park Wednesday. | Lou Foglia/Sun-Times

Despite bolts of lightning amid heavy downpours just a few hours earlier, hundreds of city residents and tourists alike grazed through Grant Park Wednesday late morning as the sweltering sun beamed down over this year’s opening of Taste of Chicago.

For some, the food fest is a staple in their summer plans — rain or shine.

<em>Mayor Rahm Emanuel made an appearance at Taste of Chicago Wednesday morning to kickoff the five-day festival. | Talia Beechick/For the Sun-Times</em>
Mayor Rahm Emanuel made an appearance at Taste of Chicago Wednesday morning to kickoff the five-day festival. | Talia Beechick/For the Sun-Times

“I’ve been coming to Taste since I was very little,” said Lizzie Alvarez, a 21-year-old from Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood. “I love the pad thai from Star of Siam; it’s what we come here every year for.”

Others come less frequently. Melissa Baker, 27, and her mother Nancy, 59, are visiting from California and Nebraska, respectively.

“We last came 15 years ago,” Melissa said, holding a Korean barbecue taco from the Rojo Gusano pop-up. “We also tried the lobster poutine from Da Lobsta.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel made an appearance Wednesday morning to kick-off the five-day festival.

While admission to the fest is free; food will cost you. Twelve-ticket strips are available for $8.50. Menu items at the tents, food trucks and pop-up restaurants require an average of eight tickets, with a smaller “taste” portion available for three to five tickets. The event also features musical performances throughout the day, with major concerts each evening at the Petrillo Music Shell.

<em>From left, Owen Ragsdale, 17, is visiting Chicago with his father Will, 52, from Sarasota Fla. | Talia Beechick/For the Sun-Times</em>
From left, Owen Ragsdale, 17, is visiting Chicago with his father Will, 52, from Sarasota Fla. | Talia Beechick/For the Sun-Times

“We’re up visiting from Sarasota, Florida,” said Will Ragsdale, 52, who brought his 17-year-old son Owen to visit Taste and watch a Cubs game. “We’ve tried the steak and cheese, Harold’s chicken, and lobster mac and cheese.”

For others, Taste of Chicago is less about the food and more about the people you meet. Sunshine Carlisle, who has worked the fest for “Mr. Robinson” at Robinson’s No. 1 Ribs for the past three years, likes the diversity among the event’s visitors.

“I like working at Taste,” said Carlisle, who was raised in Georgia and Kentucky but has lived in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood for the past 12 years. “You meet different people from different cultures. I’ve met people from London, France — all over!”

Taste of Chicago’s diversity also extends to its food; from Polish sausage and pierogi at Kasia’s Deli to the chap chae noodles from the Jin Ju pop-up to the jerk chicken and sauteed goat from Vee Vee’s African Restaurant, the fest has something for everyone to try.

<em>Sunshine Carlisle has worked the Robinson’s tent for the past three years at Taste of Chicago. | Talia Beechick/For the Sun-Times</em>
Sunshine Carlisle has worked the Robinson’s tent for the past three years at Taste of Chicago. | Talia Beechick/For the Sun-Times

While Carlisle’s favorite dish at Robinson’s is the barbecue rib tips, being a self-described “country girl,” she also likes the smoked alligator sausage from the Chicago’s Dog House tent down the way. If alligator sounds a bit too adventurous, visitors can stick to the basics.

“We’ve tried a hot dog, some ribs and pizza,” said Derek Caldwell, celebrating his 10-year anniversary with his wife, Nina, with a visit to Taste. “We’re on vacation from St. Louis — we haven’t been to Taste since our first anniversary.”

The mac and cheese at the BJ’s Market & Bakery tent was a favorite of Cortez Dixon, 30, who started working at the tent this year.

“It’s been a blast, working at Taste,” said Dixon, who is from the city’s South Side. “Our mac and cheese is the best you’ll ever have.”

GalleryTry it (and so much more) for yourself at this year’s Taste of Chicago.

Taste of Chicago runs July 6-10 in Grant Park (Jackson and Columbus). Admission is free; food ticket strips of 12 are $8.50. Pavilion tickets for the evening musical performances are available at tasteofchicago.us (lawn seating is free). For complete Taste of Chicago food vendor lists, special events and music schedule, visit tasteofchicago.us

<em>Nina and Derek Caldwell of St. Louis celebrate their 10-year anniversary at Taste of Chicago. | Talia Beechick/For the Sun-Times</em>
Nina and Derek Caldwell of St. Louis celebrate their 10-year anniversary at Taste of Chicago. | Talia Beechick/For the Sun-Times