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Less Taste — more flavor? Leaner Taste of Chicago looking to satisfy

Karyn Calabrese owner 'Karyn's Green' 130 S. Green St. Chicago serves vegan-only menu.  | Dom Najolia~Sun-Times Media

Karyn Calabrese, owner of 'Karyn's on Green' at 130 S. Green St., Chicago, serves a vegan-only menu. | Dom Najolia~Sun-Times Media

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TASTE OF CHICAGO

♦ July 11-15

♦ Grant Park

♦ Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

♦ Free admission; food and beverages require ticket purchase: strip of 12 is $8

♦ Visit www.tasteofchicago.us

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Updated: July 6, 2012 2:05PM



From Chicago’s ever-popular pizza and ribs to gourmet fare, the recast and downsized Taste of Chicago 2012, with a renewed focus on the event’s original mission — is set to showcase Chicago’s restaurants.

With the new dates of July 11 to 15 instead of around the 4th of July holiday, the city hopes to attract attendees who come primarily to enjoy the restaurant food for which Chicago has become widely known. This fest also will cost the city less in security and other expenses, especially without the July 3 crowds coming to view the nearby fireworks.

“We think it’s going to be a wonderful Taste of Chicago this year,” said Mary Slowik, who is managing the Taste for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. “We feel that the shorter number of days will be equally as impactful as the 10-day run.”

As has been previously reported, Taste attendance declined by 11 percent last year, a drop of 25 percent from 2006 and 2007. It ran a $2.7 million operating deficit over the last three years.

Long-time vendor Connie’s Pizza is one of 36 returning vendors (there were 73 applicants this year) . Last year there were 57 vendors.

“The Taste was very big for a while; we did a quarter of a million dollars in business,” said Connie’s co-owner Mike Stolfe, noting 35 percent of that was on July 3 when Connie’s sold some 10,000 pizzas between 4 and 8 p.m.

“Profitability-wise, it could be good. Before, it was a long stretch and a lot of labor and other costs, but a lot of revenue as well. When I worked it during high school, 12 straight days was tough,” Stolfe said.

“I have worked there since I could stand up when Jane Byrne was mayor and every year since then,” Stolfe recalled. “Whenever there is a Taste of Chicago, Connie’s will be a part of it.”

Connie’s will serve its traditional items of deep-dish cheese pizza, deep-dish sausage pizza, mini meatball sandwiches and chocolate-covered bananas.

Pat Looney, co-owner of the Abbey Pub and another long-time Taste participant, agreed with Stolfe that the shorter days should be easier for the vendors, especially in keeping up the food quality. “We’re looking forward to it — five days will be better on me mentally. The only problem is if it rains a couple of days.”

Looney is optimistic that a good selection of bands will help to drive customers to the food vendors. Roasted corn on the cob is the Abbey Pub’s best seller, followed by Irish-style fish and chips, Irish egg rolls (stuffed with corned beef and cabbage) and fries with Irish curry sauce.

No matter how sales turn out, the visibility of being in the Taste is good for promoting his restaurant, Looney said.

John Meyer, chef/owner of BJ’s Market & Bakery, will participate for the 13th year.

“It was a little slower than normal the last few years. This year there is an opportunity to make more money in five days than in 10 days, but it’s possible to go either way. I’m optimistic,” Meyer said.

BJ’s again will feature its popular mustard-fried catfish and peach cobbler, plus chicken tenders and house-made sweet potato chips.

Also cautiously optimistic about potential results of this year’s event is Marc Malnati, co-owner of the Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria restaurants. “I think it’s a can’t miss,” he said, due to the city’s attraction to visitors from all over. Less competition from other vendors also should work in Malnati’s favor, he surmised.

“It’s only five days, so we have to lower our expectations a little bit,” Malnati said. His company has been a Taste vendor every year except the first two and this year will serve its signature cheese pizza, sausage pizza and bruschetta.

New vendors representing more diverse cuisine will participate this year as one-day pop-up restaurants, a new venture curated by WTTW-Channel 11’s “Check Please” program. “They are neighborhood gems that would not normally be able to participate in the entire Taste,” Slowik explained. Three different pop-up restaurants will sell items for a day for the same number of tickets as the daily vendors.

Foods these restaurants will serve range from mussaman beef with rice from Arun’s, Korean pork BBQ from Jin Ju and crabcake sliders (spun tofu and seasonings) from Karyn’s on Green, a vegan restaurant.

Karyn Calabrese said she hopes having a booth at the Taste will “spread the message about vegan eating and how good the food tastes. You can be more than satisfied if you are not eating meat,” she said.

Her customers have commented that Taste items such as BBQ seitan sliders taste like pulled pork, and tofu “chicken legs” look and taste similar to chicken. She’ll also serve her chopped vegetable salad with herb dressing.

Tastegoers looking for healthful foods will find options from both the pop-up and the regular vendors who offer some items endorsed by the Humana Healthier Choices program with a red apple on the menu board.

“Celebrity Chef du Jour” is another new feature this year. A new dining area with air-conditioned tents will serve three-course dinners or lunches from five locally famous chefs with pre-paid $40 tickets. The chefs are Carlos Gaytan of Mexique, Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia, Graham Elliot of Graham Elliot and Grahamwich, Stephanie Izard of Girl and the Goat and Jimmy Bannos of Heaven on Seven.

Many of these chef meals are sold-out, but individual dishes from each chef will be available at his or her respective vendor tent. Other well-known Chicago chefs will be doing cooking demonstrations throughout the Taste.

“We are all very excited about the new Taste and hope to attract repeat and new audiences as well,” Slowik said. “We want everyone to come and experience the whole atmosphere.”

Carolyn Walkup is a local free-lance writer.



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