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Thursday, May 15, 2003 02:20 pm

A taste of Chicago. . .

. . . in the capital city

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Last week’s Taste of Chicago preview in Springfield anticipates the main event upstate, which will take place June 27 through July 6

Dottie Washington faced a dilemma. She had dined on a barbecued rib sandwich, tasted a turkey leg, and enjoyed a cheese-filled puff pastry. She had her eye on a chicken burrito that looked too tantalizing to pass up, and yet she hadn't reached the tables piled high with pizza pies, cheesecake, ice cream, and pasta dishes.

So much food and only so much room.

Washington was one of a couple hundred lucky people who nabbed an invitation to the Taste of Chicago preview held near the Illinois State Capitol last week. Under a large white tent were samples of just some of the culinary delights Chicago has to offer.

The annual Taste of Chicago festival began 23 years ago, the brainchild of Jane Byrne, the city's former mayor. Byrne envisioned a showcase for the city's finest restaurants, but many of the 65 places participating in this year's festival will end up serving the very same food, such as pizza, ribs, hot dogs, and Italian beef. But there's still plenty of variety, with a large helping of various ethnic cuisines. The event here was organized primarily for state legislators, who attended with their staffs, Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, and Governor Rod Blagojevich. Sixteen restaurants made the trip downstate.

"I've been here once before," said Washington, who works for the Springfield City Clerk. She's also trekked north to attend Taste of Chicago, but the local version has distinct advantages over the larger event. "This is all free," she explained. "You can socialize and hobnob with important people."

Katrina Adams, an employee for the Secretary of State's office, said the Springfield party has whetted her appetite for the main event: "I'm going to make sure I go to the one in Chicago." She was won over by some white chocolate dipped strawberries. She marveled at the fact that "there's enough food for everyone. They don't run out."

Tim McGivern spent the evening dishing 1,000 mammoth turkey legs into paper containers, dousing them with barbecue sauce, and wrapping them in foil. Courtesy of Helen's Restaurant on Chicago's South Side, the legs were a big hit with the crowd. "We always see people from home here," McGivern noted. "It's fun to come to Springfield, and it gives people a reason to go to Chicago."

A few tables down Ivan Matsunaga was cutting 120 14-inch pizza pies into wedges for hungry partygoers. Matsunaga--the executive vice-president of Connie's Pizza, a 40-year-old family business with locations throughout Chicagoland--has been making the trip to Springfield for five years. "It's definitely a good PR event for Chicago," he said. The amount of free food made for some shameless requests: many with full stomachs asked for boxed pizzas to take home.

An estimated 3.6 million people are expected to attend Taste of Chicago, which this year will take place June 27 through July 6 in Grant Park. Musical entertainers include Sheryl Crow and Elvis Costello. There will also be cooking demonstrations and children's activities.

For more information on Taste of Chicago--including a complete line-up of entertainment offerings--call 312-744-3370, or visit www.cityofchicago.org/specialevents. Tickets will be sold on-line beginning June 1.

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