Since 2015, the organizers behind the Chicago Pizza Summit have prided themselves in creating an event that brings together pizzerias from across the city. At the time Chicago was a city with festivals that celebrated burgers, hot dogs — and even, surprisingly for the region, lobster and oysters. So why not pizza?
Event founder Anthony Spina — a brand marketer who worked with Old Style beer — and his cohorts began building the infrastructure surrounding three core values: community, friendship, and dialog. Spina wanted an event that could endure, not just a festival that would pop up and tank after a few years. The event sold out all four years as Chicagoans entered a new era of pizza awareness, paving the way for the recent national discovery that Chicago sports multiple styles of pizza, not just deep dish. But after four years of fests, the pandemic struck stunting any momentum.
Now, after a three-year pandemic hiatus, the summit returns: “This is Chicago pizza for the people by the people,” Spina says.
This year’s event is on Sunday, October 15, at the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club in Bucktown. Organizers will host two sessions with unlimited pizza including an early all-ages time when families can bring kids. Spina is waiting to release the pizza vendor lineup. In past years, Pizza Summit has had restaurants like Angelo’s, Aurelio’s, Bacci, Connie’s, Dimo’s, and Home Run Inn. The maker of Chicago’s beloved Pizza Puff, Iltaco Foods, has even appeared. There will also be special food items only available at the festival. Spina says it’s important to listen to vendors and let them dictate what they want to serve.
Patrons will be able to play shuffleboard with pucks decorated like pizza and buy special merchandise. The hunger for shirts that display the city’s love for pizza has exploded since the inaugural event in 2016. Spina knows the allure of shirts sporting Chicago’s famous pizza bag or ones that remind patrons of the Old Style beer logo.
Throwing a pizza party takes “pizza math” that didn’t exist before summit organizers calculated how long it would take to warm up slices and if it made sense for vendors to bake pizza onsite or if they could time it right for oven-fresh deliveries direct from the restaurant to the festival. Taking a page from music festivals like Riot Fest, where organizers stagger when bands play, not all pizzas will be available at once, Spina says.
For Spina, it’s a chance to reunite with Chicago’s pizza community, a time to showcase different styles of pizza and to show Chicagoans what he’s learned since the inaugural event took place in 2016.
Spina and his team held the first summit at Chop Shop in Wicker Park and honored Vito & Nick’s matriarch Rose Barraco with a lifetime achievement award. That same year, they invited musician Andrew WK to deliver a keynote address that rallied the crowd with a message of pizza positivity. WK held no interest in judging regional styles or declaring one pizza style was better than another. He wasn’t trying to be cheesy, but WK believes in fostering an inclusive community where folks can just party. Spina shares this philosophy and doesn’t want to grow his event too quickly. He resisted overtures to move the event outdoors where he could draw more patrons. In 2018, they moved to Thalia Hall in Pilsen and held its last offering in 2019 at the Theater in the Lake in Lincoln Park. During COVID’s height, Spina says he missed the one-on-one interactions and people discovering pizzerias they hadn’t had a chance to try. Particularly, it was great to see a North Sider try a slice from a South Side pizzaiola. These little interactions are what fueled Spina to bring the summit back.
There are other pizza festivals these days. Spina watched what happened in late August at the Salt Shed with Steve Dolinsky’s Pizza City Fest. Dolinsky was a past speaker at the summit. Spina worked with the Salt Shed management when the summit was at Thalia Hall and raved about his past experiences. He didn’t want to comment on the other event’s challenges but noted how pizza brings out passion: “If you ask 100 Chicagoans who has the best pizza, there are going to be 100 different answers,” Spina says.
Spina adds that if another organization can put on a better pizza party, he’ll be the first in line for a ticket. There’s plenty of room in Chicago for more than one approach to a festival, he says. The summit won’t have panel discussions, it’s more about a fun reunion of friends over pizza.
There’s also no VIP section: “If you can’t eat pizza with your fellow Chicagoans — it doesn’t matter who are you eating pizza with here,” Spina says. “The whole point of the event is that there’s no separation.”