The signs are unmistakable. The line wraps around the UIC Pavilon, braving the cold. A group of men walks in dressed in hazmat suits outfitted with a holstered roll of paper towels. They have come prepared and they mean business. Divided plates and Tupperware containers abound. On stage a grown man dressed in a chicken suit announces the day's events. A band is setting up to play. The air inside is permeated with aromas of fried chicken, hot sauce and barbecue smoke. This ain't no tea party, darlin'. This is WingFest, an annual celebration of the humble chicken wing in all its glory.
I admit it, I am a rookie. I did not come prepared, and no amount of wet naps could help my cause. My clothes are covered with sauce drips and my fingers are stained. I start to understand the hazmat suits, the paper towels and t-shirts labeled "wearable napkin" about 10 minutes into the event. It is a messy affair, gloriously so. 30 local restaurants are flexing their wing muscles for the revelers. Over 60 different flavors of wings, over 9,000 pieces of chicken. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and I failed in training.
Some of the 2017 WingFest participants included: Rhyme Or Reason, Howells & Hood, Chicago Culinary Kitchen, Son of A Butcher Tavern, River Forest Catering, Q’s Tips & Wings Bar-B-Que, Reggie’s, Gators Wing Shack, Revel, WHISK, Paisans Pizzeria, McQ’s Bar & Grill, Fire Water BBQ, Buffalo Wings & Rings, Mahoney’s Pub & Grille, Downtown Dogs, Estadio Grill, Hilton Chicago, Estrella Negra, Output Lounge, Timothy O’Toole’s Pub, Porkchop, Nola Nights, Tap House Grill, Half Day Brewing, SPiN Chicago, The Blanchard, Corcoran’s Grill & Pub, 10 Pin and Freestyle.
Festival-goers were treated to a variety of wings from some of Chicago’s leading chefs, sampling submissions in Mild, Hot, BBQ and Exotic categories to win Best of Fest, which received a traveling trophy, the Stanley Cup of wings. In addition, the event hosted its annual wing eating competition to see who can eat a dozen hot wings the fastest. The winners were crowned Lady and Lord of the Wings, rewarded with WingFest swag and ultimate bragging rights.
WingFest has benefitted various charities over the years and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to date. This year’s festival raised money for the Illinois Restaurant Association’s Educational Foundation. What's better than munching wings for a good cause?
Curious about the winning flavors? Here is a list of winners for you to plan your wing pub crawl around:
Best of Fest - Half Day Brewing
Rookie of the year - Half Day Brewing
1st - Half Bay Brewing
2nd - Output Lounge
3rd - River Forest Catering and Howells & Hood (tie)
1st - Paisans Pizzeria
2nd - Estrella Nedra
3rd - Howells & Hood
1st - Whisk
2nd - 10Pin Bowling Lounge
3rd - Q's Tips & Wings
1st - Paisans Pizzeria
2nd - Son of a Butcher by Whisk
3rd - Gators Wing Shack
I tried, y'all. I really did. I tried to sample everything. But I did run out of steam and stomach space. And inevitably, the wing that unequivocally won my heart didn't earn a trophy. Just goes to show you that tastes differ as widely as wing flavors. The winning hot wing from Half Day Brewing made tears spring to my eyes instantly after one bite. I guess I am kind of a weakling. For me personally the Best of Show was Freestyle Food & Drink. Their Tiger Wings with Sriracha Buffalo and Sesame Glaze were my absolute favorite hands down. With just the right balance of heat, sweetness, acid and crunch, I was wishing I had more of those babies.
There were certainly some unusual flavor combinations at the festival, like Coq au Vin spiked with Szechuan peppercorns from The Blanchard or PB&J from McQ’s. Some went traditional, some went breaded. The sauces abounded, most notably Output Lounge's vat of bright orange habanero that made you sweat just by standing near it. Good times were had by all.
Established in 1999, WingFest is one of Chicago’s most popular food festivals. It is produced by Lodge Management Group, which operates 11 bars and eateries across the city, including six of the city’s most iconic bars in the Gold Coast’s Division Street Entertainment District. For more information on this annual celebration visit wingfest.net.
The Local Tourist access to WingFest 2017 courtesy of Lodge Management Group and Blast Marketing and PR.
Photos by Gourmet Rambler.
18th annual WingFest was a celebration of all things chicken wing, and it has us clucking for joy.