Last year was a learning experience for the organizers of I Heart Halal, an event that debuted in 2018 at Navy Pier, one dubbed as America’s first halal lifestyle festival. Organizers said they expected 5,000 attendees over the event’s three days to celebrate elements including food and fashion. Instead around 17,000 visited, and while the response showed that the Muslim-centered festival was a hit, vendors ran out of food after attendees waited in long lines.
Through a feedback survey, fest-goers listed food as the top reason they visited. The second reason was they saw the event as a great opportunity to hang out with friends and catch up in Downtown Chicago.
“Food was the main thing getting them through the door,” said event board member Salman Chaudry.
I Heart Halal returns on Friday, April 12 through Sunday, April 14 at Navy Pier, and organizers are trying to make getting a bite to eat easier. Overall, the fest’s footprint will grow by 50 percent and that includes a bigger food court. Lupe Fiasco is also performing, and there’s Top Chef and Cake Boss-style competitions using halal ingredients.
The fest’s partnering with new vendors, including the biggest restaurant company in Chicago, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. They’re working with LEYE’s restaurants Navy Pier restaurants to make halal versions of its food from Big Bowl, Big City Chicken, and Frankie’s by the Slice.
“Pizza with [beef] pepperoni is a Muslim’s dream,” said Zubair Mohajir.
That pizza’s a big deal. It’s hard to see college friends ordering pepperoni and having to abstain due to religious restrictions, said Mohajir, a Chicago-area native. He will lend his fine dining skills to the festival. In March 2018, he unveiled Wazwan Supper Club, an underground dinner series that features modern versions of South Asian food. Last year, he conducted cooking demonstrations for the fest and he’ll do that again this year. One of Wazwan’s specialties is tandoori fried chicken. Mohajir will adapt that for the festival with a sandwich with som tam slaw, gochujang aioli, and spice honey butter on a brioche bun.
That’s the kind of item that would grab the attention of many Chicagoans, no matter their religion. That’s something else that festival organizers Chaudry and Asma Ahad learned last year. The food aspect draws a broader visitor base, and they’re ready for the demand.
That provided an opportunity for Lettuce Entertain You’s Navy Pier restaurants. Lettuce’s team attended the event last year and that inspired company’s officials to research halal. They’ll have four kiosks at the festival with halal-certified burgers, tacos, Asian-inspired bowls, and pizza.
“Our locations will go through a certification process prior to the event, work with certified local halal vendors, and honor all the practices for the weekend of the festival,” said LEYE executive partner Kevin Reynolds. Reynolds oversees the group’s Navy Pier operations.
Wok N Chop, an Indo-Chinese restaurant in North Park, also returns to the fest. It’s known for spicy lollipop chicken wings. Attendees can also expect noodles and a “gravy dish,” said Wok N Chop’s Umarfaruq Hira. Many festival goers are from the suburbs, and didn’t now about Wok N Chop, and the event gives the restaurant a way to generate business back to North Park.
Though some may write it off as touristy, Navy Pier represents a tentpole in Chicago for many marginalized populations. It’s a place to be seen and acknowledged. It’s not unlike how Grant Park and Taste of Chicago is perceived by many African-Americans in Chicago. The central location means a lot.
“It’s not hiding anywhere in the suburbs, like Rosemont,” said Mohajir.
That’s important in a political climate where Muslims and many immigrants feel increased scrutiny, said Mohajir.
“It’s created a stigma where anything we’re associated with almost becomes antagonistic,” he said. “Environments like this really break those things down.”
Halal certification isn’t unlike kosher or organic items. Items are readily available in Chicago but also cost more, said Mohajir. But the quality and taste, for items like chicken, is worth it, he said.
There’s also a spirit of inclusiveness with halal, and that’s what the festival wants to capture, said Asad. This year, they’ll be ready for bigger crowds.
“Just be prepared to be blown away,” she said.
Besides Wazwan’s fine dining touch, LEYE’s Americanized halal food, and the Indo-Chinese items from Wok N Chop, there’s also Badou Sengalese Cuisine to represent African flavors. California hot dog import Dog Haus is also making an appearance.
The full food lineup follows below. I Heart Halal goes from April 12 to 14 at Navy Pier. Tickets are available here.
- Dog Haus
- Wazwan Supper Club
- Chimney Cone Creamery
- Scrumptious by Hira
- Verzenay Patisserie
- Wok N Chop
- Karahi Corner
- Mediterranean Express
- Badou senegalese cuisine
- Lettuce Entertain You Burgers
- Lettuce Entertain You Tacos
- Big Bowl (Lettuce Entertain You)
- Frankie’s Pizza (Lettuce Entertain You)
- Big City Chicken (Lettuce Entertain You)