While some festivals have taken place this spring and summer in Chicago, none have had the size and scope of the Windy City Smokeout. Returning to the United Center parking lots July 8 to 11 — after last year’s installment was canceled due to the pandemic — the city’s first large-scale food festival since 2020 will feature some of the country’s best barbecue pitmasters and hottest country music acts.
With 17 nationally renowned barbecue joints participating, like Charleston, South Carolina- based Rodney Scott’s BBQ; Texas’s Salt Lick BBQ; and St. Louis’s Pappy’s Smokehouse; plus 19 musical acts including headliners Darius Rucker, Dierks Bentley, Jon Pardi (and hometown favorite Brett Eldredge), tens of thousands of people are expected to pack the Near West Side over those four days.
The city has entrusted festival organizers to put on a safe festival and Mayor Lori Lightfoot touted the event in April alongside executives from the city’s largest hospitality company. Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises runs the festival, and Lightfoot’s team worked in concert with them.
“When approving this and other outdoor festivals, the health department was able to observe how much headway we’ve made against the virus,” says Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar. “At the same time, COVID-19 is still with us, so we want to emphasize how important it is for people to get vaccinated, especially if they plan to attend large events.”
The Smokeout takes place at outside the United Center, coincidentally the home of one of the city’s first large-scale vaccination centers. The major event comes following the return of some smaller-scale events in the city. In June, Chicago brought back the Old Town Art Fair, the Puerto Rican People’s Day Parade, and Pride in the Park. But other food events, notably Taste of Chicago and Chicago Gourmet, aren’t ready for full comebacks.
“We’re appreciative of the city for having faith in us to put on a safe festival,” says Ed Warm, festival co-founder, owner of Joe’s on Weed Street, Bub City, and Carol’s Pub, and the chairman of the Academy of Country Music. “We’re prepared and ready to tackle the challenges.”
Rebounding from 2020
This year marks the festival’s eighth installment, the second at the United Center parking lot after moving from its home at Grand Avenue and the Chicago River. When organizers canceled last year, most of the artists and restaurants had already signed on.
“Everyone was in within seconds of me sending the email,” says Christian Eckmann, a chef-partner at LEYE, who oversees numerous restaurants and organizes the pitmaster lineup. “Then we had to figure out how we were going to do this — talking to officials and doctors to keep everyone safe, not knowing where we were going to be [with the pandemic in July].”
As cities started reopening around the country, some pitmasters who committed realized they wouldn’t have the resources to travel to Chicago. The labor shortage prevented some from leaving their restaurants, and the increasing cost of meat also poses a financial challenge. But the event soldiered on.
“I feel proud to be able to bring it back,” Eckmann says. “We all worked really hard for it and it’s a definite labor of love.”
Let them entertain you
While big-name acts will ideally serve as a draw for the festival, Warm — a respected music promoter with deep connections within the country music industry, who curated the lineup — says he’s excited for up-and-coming stars, including Hailey Whitters and Riley Green, to appear this year.
“[Hailey] is such a creative songwriter, fun performer, and Midwest girl from Iowa; I’m such a supporter of hers,” Warm says. “And I’m really excited for people to see Riley Green. He’s a superstar in the making.”
Many of the artists, who also had to sideline most live shows and touring over the last year, say they can’t wait to perform.
“This year really made me realize just how much I love playing live music,” says Darius Rucker, who headlines Friday. “Video performances were a good way to stay connected, but there’s no substitute for the moments where you laugh, hug, and sing your favorite song at the top of your lungs.”
Rucker, who says he’s a big fan of pitmaster Rodney Scott and plans to eat as much great barbecue as possible while on-site, released his last single, “Beers and Sunshine,” during the pandemic. He hadn’t performed it live until recently.
“I’m excited to share the newer music people haven’t heard yet — and of course we’ll play the hits,” which will include some favorite tunes from his time fronting Hootie & The Blowfish, he says. “I’d be ripping people off if I left without playing those hits.”
Dealing with the pandemic stall
For those who plan to hit the festival all four days, know the barbecue offerings on Thursday will be limited to Bub City, Green Street Smoked Meats, Lillie’s Q, the Duck Inn, Pearl’s Southern Comfort, Pappy’s Smokehouse, and Sugarfire Smokehouse. Scott will only be on-site Friday and will cook whole-hog sliders with slaw. The rest will cook for the duration.
Amy Mills, from 17th Street BBQ in downstate Murphysboro, will represent her family’s two restaurants while honoring her award-winning pitmaster dad, Mike Mills, who passed away in December. Her team will serve brisket nachos with five-bean baked beans topped with cheese and jalapenos. She calls her seventh appearance in the festival — and the first without her father — bittersweet, but also exciting.
“We’ve been sequestered for so long, but as COVID numbers drop, we’re excited to be back out there serving barbecue with our friends,” Mills says. “This is such a unique culture of people and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Burt Bakman, who owns Slab in LA, waited to see what other pitmasters’ menus featured to avoid duplication, and will make tri-tip sandwiches served with fennel slaw, as well as smoked beef ribs. His entire LA team will be in Las Vegas opening a new venue at the Wynn, so he tapped other “non-professionals” — his accountant, a neighbor, his brother-in-law, another friend — to help create a festive vibe at his booth.
“We come in, have a good time, and don’t take it too seriously — just like you shouldn’t take barbecue too seriously,” Bakman says. “We’re there to have fun, meet people, that’s it. But it’s gonna be a good bite.”
Smokeout will also have food from LEYE restaurants and collaborators, including Happy Camper, Tallboy Taco, Sushi-san, and other non-barbecue vendors. Nearly 30 beer and cider vendors will pull taps, from behemoths like Goose Island and Shiner to craft houses like Moody Tongue, Spiteful, and Haymarket from Chicago alongside Deschutes, 4 Hands Brewing, Virtue Cider, and Stem Ciders. Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, and Casamigos will also have large presences on-site.
Addressing safety concerns
Eckmann says they’ve continually responded to a steady flow of questions around public safety for the event. Organizers added 35 percent more space over the grounds’ 18 acres, providing more room to spread out. Warm says they added more bars to get beverages and additional open-air tents for shade.
Everyone attending the festival will have to show proof of vaccine or a negative COVID-19 test from no more than 72 hours prior to entry. The fest is also using Health Pass by CLEAR, a government-approved app used at large-scale sporting events like the NHL playoffs. Areas will be continually cleaned and sanitized, and handwashing stations will sit every 100 feet. Vendors will all use contactless payment.
“We have to be prepared and we’re seeing people’s behaviors have changed,” says George Chiampas of Chicago Event Management, an event production company working with Smokeout. Chiampus is an assistant professor of emergency medicine and orthopaedic surgery at Northwestern Medicine who specializes in mass event management and the chief medical officer for the U.S. men’s soccer team: “You have to have complete transparency and be willing to modify plans. As we get closer to the event, we may still need to adapt and change.”
Even though things continue to change, people can expect familiarity when they get to the festival.
“Without a doubt, they’ll feel they’re at Smokeout,” Warm adds. “That’s what we want. It’s a return to gathering, a return to normal.”