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City banking on tourism boost from James Beard Awards gala

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced last year that the James Beard Awards were headed to Chicago. He was joined by Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation (on his left ) and Don Welsh, president and CEO of Choose Chicago (on his right). | Sun-Times File Photo

The James Beard Awards will be held in Chicago for the first time on Monday, and the city is ready to show off its culinary scene and cash in on tourism.

Dubbed the Academy Awards of the food industry, the James Beard Awards recognize the top chefs and restaurants in the country. This year’s ceremony also celebrates the awards’ 25th anniversary.

“People in the food industry from all over the country are now going to descend upon Chicago to reunite with friends they’ve worked with, make new friends and discover the dining scene,” said Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation.

This is the first time the award ceremony will be held outside New York, where the James Beard Foundation is headquartered. Chicago will host the annual ceremony through 2017.

“This was a very well-thought-through strategic and financial decision. The belief was all along that we didn’t want it for just one year but for multiple years,” said Don Welsh, president of Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism marketer.

General admission tickets started at $500 for the now sold-out event at the Lyric Opera House.

Bringing the ceremony to Chicago was an effort long in the making for city officials; the goal from the get-go was to boost tourism and show off the city’s diverse culinary scene.

“We have the leading artists in the culinary arts. This was built on a foundation of what the chefs are doing in the city,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who met with the James Beard Foundation to persuade them to move the awards.

“I saw them in New York and brought them here to Chicago — I made them an offer they couldn’t refuse,” he said.

The city is aiming to host 55 million tourists yearly by 2020; last year, about 50 million tourists visited Chicago. The awards, along with other events such as the NFL Draft, Taste of Chicago and Chicago Gourmet, are all designed to increase tourism.

“We have great architecture, great museums, great dance, great music. The culinary scene is also a great art, and if you want to highlight what you have in your city, you want to bring attention to unique art,” Emanuel said. “The culinary scene is another form of art that brings tourists. It’s another way to drive tourism to Chicago.”

Welsh said the increase in tourism will generate about $15 billion in additional revenue, which will mean more than $1 billion in taxes and create thousands of jobs.

Choose Chicago, the mayor’s office and the Illinois Restaurant Association spearheaded Chicago’s bid. Negotiations with the James Beard Foundation involved looking for sponsors, Welsh said.

“The first thing the mayor made clear was that if we were bidding on the James Beard Awards, that no taxpayer dollars could be used for this. This had to be a proposal that was more or less 100 percent funded by the private sector and donations,” Welsh said.

Mariano’s, Lexus and HMS Hosts — which is in charge of food services at Chicago airports — jumped right in, the official said, adding that the Chicago Department of Aviation and the state also supported Chicago’s bid.

The deal with the James Beard Foundation required city officials to raise $2.7 million over the next two years; about $1.7 million were raised this year. This is on top of the foundation’s own fundraising.

“We take no risks when taking our biggest show of the year on the road,” Ungaro said. “If anything, it was a great opportunity for our foundation.”

The money raised will cover event costs including use of the Lyric Opera House — the location the foundation wanted, Ungaro said.

About 2,000 chefs and restaurateurs are expected to attend the event — but also check out Chicago’s culinary scene.

“That’s kind of what we’re hoping — having all the great chefs come see what we do here,” said chef Curtis Duffy, one of 11 Chicago chefs, restaurants, bakeries and restaurateurs that are finalists for the awards.

Ungaro said many chefs are excited about the change.

“They don’t have to be the hosts anymore, now they’re the guests,” Ungaro said. “They’re psyched about being the guests in another great food city.”

Art Smith polished up a couple of his past James Beard awards to bring to last year’s announcement that the awards gala was being held in Chicago for the next three years. | Sun-Times File Photo