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Chicago Gourmet Aims to Reinvigorate Downtown

The Millennium Park festival sets a travel theme for the 2023 festival

A woman pours wine from a bottle into a glass inside a crowded tent.
Events like the Grand Cru and Hamburger Hop will return in September.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

Chicago Gourmet, the high-profile annual food festival that brings together some of the city’s most lauded restaurants and chefs, will return this year from Thursday, September 21 to 24 to the Harris Theater rooftop in Millennium Park. A key promotional opportunity for the Illinois Restaurant Association, this year’s fest — themed “All Roads Lead to Gourmet” — aims to draw both locals and visitors to Downtown Chicago in the hope of spreading excited energy and tourism dollars through area hotels and restaurants.

“Chicago Gourmet is one of the best food and wine shows in the country — I don’t care what they say in South Beach or Pebble Beach,” says association President Sam Toia. He and fellow organizers hope that the city’s temperate September weather and emphasis on travel will lure out-of-towners to visit for the whole weekend, and even induce some locals to opt for a staycation. “It’s all about guests in beds and diners in seats,” he adds.

For the first time, Chicago Gourmet will launch on the heels of Taste of Chicago, the city’s more casual annual summer food festival held along the lakefront in Grant Park. This year’s Taste was bumped from its longtime Fourth of July date to a new slot from Friday September 8 to 10 due to the city’s controversial double-booking with the NASCAR Chicago Street Race, scheduled for the same geographic area and July time frame. While Chicagoans will only have a few weeks to tend to their stomachs between festivals, Chicago Gourmet’s upscale emphasis will offer some variety.

Tacos & Tequila, a kickoff event hosted by celebrity chef Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill, Topolobampo) is set for Thursday, September 21. Attendees can expect a selection of fancy tacos and agave spirits, as well as mariachi and mojiganga performances. On Friday, Top Chef and Iron Chef champion Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat) will host the popular Hamburger Hop competition, themed this year after a “great American road trip,” also on the Harris Theater Rooftop (last year’s prize went to Corey Grupe of Burger Federation in Terminal 3 of O’Hare International Airport). That’s followed by an after-party, Late Night Gourmet, with small bites, cocktails, and dancing at Tao Chicago in River North.

Grand Cru, a luxurious and pricey ($255 per person in 2022) VIP-style gathering featuring exclusive winemakers and prominent chefs, will return with two sessions on Saturday, and James Beard Award-winning chef Sarah Grueneberg (Monteverde) will on Sunday host the second annual Prost! in the Park, an Oktoberfest-style party. A portion of proceeds from Chicago Gourmet will go to the Illinois Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, a non-profit offering scholarships and employee relief funds to local hospitality workers. In July, organizers will announce a full lineup of participating chefs and open ticket sales on the Chicago Gourmet website.

This year’s focus on travel ties in neatly with concerns over Downtown Chicago’s slow economic recovery following the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a major talking point during the mayoral election, and a challenge for Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson.

Tourism, however, saw a significant rebound last summer, with Choose Chicago President and CEO Lynn Osmond pointing to a 90 percent recovery rate relative to chart-topping numbers in 2019.

Now years out from pandemic-era mitigation measures, Chicago’s hospitality industry at large has no trouble drumming up business when the weather is warm. But when the seasons change and cold temperatures inevitably return, numerous restaurants in Downtown neighborhoods have continued to struggle with slow foot traffic and empty office buildings. These include Minahasa, chef John Avila’s Indonesian stall that closed in February inside Revival Food Hall. “The occupancy around downtown is just not what it needs to be,” he said at the time.

Stay tuned for more details on Chicago Gourmet’s plans for 2023.