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City to start charging $25 for seats at Taste of Chicago concerts

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Updated: April 16, 2012 8:19AM

Taste of Chicago patrons will pay $25 each for 3,000 concert seats at the Petrillo Music Shell that have long been free, thanks to the latest change aimed at stopping the bleeding at Chicago’s premier summer festival.

Rejecting his predecessor’s view that Taste of Chicago “always be free,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced an ordinance at Wednesday’s City Council meeting that would set the stage for the first-ever fee for Taste concerts at Petrillo to raise $375,000 that would help offset $2.7 million in festival losses over the last three years.

Lawn seating for 30,000 people will remain free.

“Every year for the last, I think it’s three years, the Taste has lost money. At the end of the day, taxpayers are on the hook. So, I said we’re gonna make changes. We’re gonna try something different,” the mayor said.

“So we’re bringing celebrity chefs who usually aren’t open to everybody [to cook three-course meals for those willing to pay $40.] We’ll do that different and people will choose whether they’re gonna participate in that. We are gonna have music. ... For the actual seat, you’ll be charged. If you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to.”

He added, “Nobody’s forcing you. I’m not telling you you have to go. What I’m suggesting is we try to reform this so taxpayers aren’t on the hook. If you want to go listen to the music, it will cost.”

Last year’s Taste drew 2.35 million visitors — down 11 percent from 2010 and 37.5 percent from the event’s 2006 and 2007 heyday.

The 59 participating restaurants made $4.9 million — 20 percent less than the year before. The losses were blamed on the Chicago Park District’s decision to close earlier, cancel the city’s official fireworks show, fold Chicago’s four least popular music festivals into the Taste and focus on local talent and family-oriented events, instead of big name entertainment.

This year, the city is promising a return to big-name entertainment to revive interest in a Taste that’s been cut in half — from ten days to five — and bumped to July 11 to 15 from its prime position around July 4th weekend.

For $40 per patron, Taste will have a “Celebrity Chef du Jour” prepare a three-course, sit-down dinner on July 11, 12 and 13 and a three-course lunch on July 14 and 15.

The line-up of big-name chefs who have expressed interest in participating include: Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia; Stephanie Izard, who parlayed her performance on Top Chef into the wildly-popular restaurant, Girl and the Goat; Heaven on Seven’s Jimmy Bannos and Graham Elliot who owns Grahamwich and another restaurant that bears his name.

In addition to preparing the meal, participating chefs will offer cooking demonstrations.

In 2010, former Mayor Richard M. Daley tried to privatize the Taste, only to shelve the idea over his steadfast opposition to the lone bidder’s proposal for a $20 admission fee and a $65 ticket to Taste’s biggest-name entertainment stage.

The lone bid came from a joint-venture between the Illinois Restaurant Association and two of the biggest names in the production of of live entertainment: Chicago-based JAM Productions and AEG Live.

Known as Celebrate Chicago, the group argued that the only way to stop the bleeding at the Taste — and attract bigger name talent to rival Milwaukee’s Summerfest — was to start charging for admission to the Taste and even more for the most popular concerts.

Daley strongly disagreed.

“We’re not Milwaukee. Milwaukee has a [permanent] venue that they charge people for festivals. The Taste of Chicago will always be free,” Daley said at the time.

“This is called a taste of food. . .. We’re not into music. We got into tangents and the cost kept going up. We’re gonna get it back down and do the Taste of Chicago for food and that’s all.”

Celebrate Chicago subsequently submitted a revised bid that would have reduced the admission fee to $10. Daley rejected it and kept the Taste in-house, but shifted control to the Park District, where it continued to lose money.

Illinois Restaurant Association President Sheila O’Grady, Daley’s longest-serving chief-of-staff, applauded Emanuel for adopting her group’s proposal to start charging for concerts at the Taste.

“It could be a revenue generator for the event and really help the event turn the corner financially so it can be here for another 30 years,” O’Grady said.

Noting that Summerfest already charges for concert tickets, “It’s still free to get into Taste of Chicago. This is going to be one small part of it. It’s a great way to pilot the concept of having ticketed events within Taste of Chicago.”

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