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Sole bid for Taste of Chicago would increase admission

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Taste of Chicago patrons would pay a $20 admission fee—and up to $65-a-head for a music stage that draws the biggest-name talent—if City Hall accepts the only bid it got to take over lakefront festivals.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last month that Chicago lost $7 million on Taste and six other lakefront festivals over the last three years, prompting City Hall to allow private operators vying to take over the events to sell naming rights and charge admission fees.

As it turned out, there was no competition.

The city received only one bid--from Celebrate Chicago LLC, a heavy-hitting joint-venture comprised of the Illinois Restaurant Association and two of the biggest names in the production of live entertainment: Chicago-based JAM Productions and AEG Live.

Celebrate Chicago wants to boost sagging attendance and upgrade talent by charging the $20 admission fee, with $10 of that money rebated to patrons in the form of food and beverage tickets.

The admission fee would apply during weekends, holidays and after 4 p.m. on weekdays. Children under 10 would continue to get in free.

Celebrate Chicago also proposes to follow the lead of Milwaukee’s popular Summerfest by selling concert tickets for its biggest-name entertainment stage.

Concert tickets would range from $25 to $65, but the $20 Taste admission fee would be waived for concert goers.

Taste attendees already pay an “amenities charge” of $2 for every strip of a dozen food tickets sold for $8. Celebrate Chicago would eliminate that “hidden fee.”

General admission tickets would also be pre-sold in May and June for a bargain fee of $8.

Celebrate Chicago’s bid also includes a $10 admission fee for Blues and Jazz Fest. Admission to Viva Chicago, Celtic, Gospel and Country Fest would remain free.

AEG is one of the world’s leading concert promoters and touring companies. It produces the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a two-week celebration that’s a huge tourist attraction in the Big Easy.

JAM Productions bills itself as the nation’s “largest independent producer of live entertainment.”

The Illinois Restaurant Association is run by Sheila O’Grady, Mayor Daley’s longest-serving chief-of-staff. The association has managed the event’s food and beverage operations for the last 27 years.

Together, joint-venture partners propose to expand family programming and have restaurants “grouped by neighborhoods” so people have a “real sense of Chicago.”

With Taste of Chicago “hemorrhaging money,” the team quickly concluded that it was “kind of impossible” to avoid an admission fee and still draw bigger-name talent.

Last year, Taste had only two “recognizable names” performing on its stages and several stages were frequently “dark.” Summerfest had more than a dozen “huge names.”

“For a city like Chicago to get beat by Milwaukee is unacceptable. The level of talent we have playing the Taste needs to be elevated,” said a source familiar with the bid.

“The idea is to change it a lot over the years…We don’t see that happening in the first year, given the time [crunch]. But there isn’t any reason why this food and music event shouldn’t be bringing in tens of thousands of tourists. Chicago should have one of the premier events in the country.”

Last fall, Special Events Director Megan McDonald warned that big-time cuts could be coming to the lakefront festivals if the selection process drags on too long or if the city isn’t satisfied with the bids.

Now the only team vying to take over the event is warning that time’s a wasting.

“The city can’t do this. They haven’t booked a single act and some of the talent is already booked [to other venues]. Only a private company can do this. In fact, we should have been working on this months ago,” said a source familiar with the bid.

McDonald could not be reached for comment. Procurement Services spokesperson Shannon Andrews did not return calls.

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