Ribfest Chicago returns to North Center with expanded offerings, but it’s still ‘all about the ribs’

When it comes to cooking ribs, the sauce, rub and time are all key ingredients.

But for many pitmasters, or “ribbers” at the 24 annual Ribfest Chicago in North Center this weekend, family is just as essential.

It’s the inspiration for Thomas Green Jr., whose father would grill on the family’s porch.

“And when he would grill, I never knew the impact that he made when it came down to bringing people together,” Green said.

Today the younger Green is the owner of Mr Greens BBQ based in Milwaukee, where he started as a food truck before opening a brick and mortar. He’s known for brisket, “but it’s all about the ribs,” Green said.

He melds his Chicago-area roots — his dad grew up on the West Side and his mom grew up in Maywood — with local Wisconsin ingredients such as chilies and honey for his own spin on ribs. For example, his sweet heat sauce is inspired by Chicago mild sauce, a vinegar-based condiment, that he put his own spin on to “create our own sweet heat sauce.”

As a newcomer to the festival, he said, “You gotta bring your A game. So having roots in Chicago, and growing up in Wisconsin, I just had to do something to compete with them.”

Green was among 10 of the featured barbecue vendors at the three-day festival. He cooks his ribs for four hours over charcoal and white oak and cherry wood, wraps it, adds more seasoning and then cooks for another hour to let that flavor permeate the St. Louis style ribs. And for at least one festgoer, it ranked high on his list.

“It has all the qualities [of a good rib],” said Jacob Wallingford of Lakeview, who was attending Ribfest for the third time with a group of dining companions making their way down Lincoln Avenue to try all the offerings. “We have five more to go,” Wallingford said, but “[Mr. Greens so far] is No. 1.”

A longtime Ribfest vendor is Austin’s Texas Lightning BBQ, where barbecue also runs in the family. Owner Nikki Haggerty’s father owned Giovanni’s in Berwyn and Haggerty’s 14-year-old daughter, Taylor, is already a seasoned pro with the family business.

Haggerty worked with a pitmaster from Texas and then took over his business when he wanted to retire 10 years ago.

“I’ve learned a lot about barbecue over the last 37 years,” said Haggerty, of Clarendon Hills. “My dad was a great inspiration and still is … now I’m passing it down and making my kids come out here and do the same thing.”

Taylor said she likes being a part of the action.

“I think it’s really cool that we have like a family business that we could work through in the summer. And I have a job to do.”

The mobile BBQ company travels all around the country, and Ribfest Chicago ranks among their top five events, Haggerty said, with people coming back year after year.

“It’s great when you start seeing some of the same people … when you’re only here once a year, you see the same faces, it’s kind of a neat thing. And you know, you’re doing something right.”

This year’s fest, which draws attendees in the “tens of thousands,” features new attractions for all ages, Tim Shepardson, president of the Northcenter Chamber of Commerce and owner of Rocks Northcenter restaurant.

For the kids, the play area has been expanded, featuring more games, face painting and inflatables such as a bounce house and a Titanic-inspired slide.

For those who enjoy adult beverages, new this year is a whiskey tasting featuring 20 different whiskeys. Attendees can purchase tickets for two-hour windows and learn about each one.

Shepardson said the whiskey tasting came about as a way to bring something new to the long-running event.

He pointed out the recent news that Naperville was no longer holding their rib festival. “And that stinks. We want to keep our festival going. We love it. But it’s going to mean pivoting and giving more and different things to the crowd.”

Ribfest has been held in August since the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, the Democratic National Convention will be in town, which wasn’t “good timing” to hold the event, Shepardson said. The fest historically has been held in June, going back to the days when a small group of dads gathered in a parking lot with a few Weber grills, so organizers decided to move the fest back to June.

“Dads love ribs and beer and whiskey. It’s a perfect Father’s Day activity,” Shepardson said.

The fest continues Sunday at Lincoln, Irving Park and Damen. The People’s Choice Award will be announced Sunday; a panel of celebrity judges crowned their top choice, Aussom Aussie Australian Barbecue Company, on Saturday afternoon.

Attendance is free with a $10 suggested donation upon entry. VIP passes, which include access to a special lounge tent with private seating, swag bag and drink tickets, are available for $50. A portion of the proceeds benefit community organizations including Neighborhood Boys & Girls Club, Friends of Ravenswood School, Chicago Rescue Authority and Common Pantry.

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