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Updated 07/11/12 – 9:59 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – Chicago’s 32nd edition of Taste of Chicago opened with diminutive Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) pronouncing it: “Shorter, but better, just like myself.”
This year’s Taste is just five days, in a move to cut costs on an event that has lost money in recent years. It also includes fewer vendors than past years, but many of the stalwarts remain – including Robinson’s Ribs, Eli’s Cheesecake, and the Billy Goat Tavern.
Opening a week after July 4, rather than starting in late June and ending on the Independence Day holiday, crowds were noticeably smaller than most previous years, and the crowds and lines at the booths were no problem for Taste visitors.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s John Cody reports
One Taste customer said it was “too little. I liked it better when it was bigger.”
Though there were fewer vendors, there was still plenty of food – from ox tails to lobster tails, and cheese fries to Italian ice.
Jacque Bailey said she liked the decision to push the Taste back after July 4.
“The kids would come for the fireworks, and then there’d be the troublemakers when it’s time to go home. It didn’t work,” she said.
Not everyone agreed.
“It’s a tradition. We’re used to having it on the 4th and the 3rd, with the fireworks. Everyone in Chicago looks forward to it,” said Darius Barnes.
The icon for this year’s event was a half-ton Eli’s cheesecake, which vanished shortly after actor Kelsey Grammer cut the first piece and started handing out free samples to a long line attending Wednesday’s opening of the Taste.
“I’m thrilled to be here to cut this enormous piece of fat, but it is surely a delicacy at any measure,” he said.
Grammer – star of TV classics “Cheers” and “Frasier” and the current Starz drama “Boss,” in which he stars as the fictional mayor of Chicago – had to use two hands to cut the first piece of the 1,000 piece cake, which required 350 pounds of cream cheese, and hundreds of eggs, and was topped with four-inch diameter decorative cherries.
Eli’s president Marc Schulman, son of founder Eli Schulman, said it’s the same as dad made, just bigger.
“He really worked hard at this. It’s the sour cream, it’s the cookie; it’s based on the cookie crust, so it’s a cheesecake on a cookie,” he said.
Eli’s has been a vendor at the Taste ever since it began.
Dave Samber, founder of Bridgeport’s Polo Café, said before he comes to Taste of Chicago each year, he tailors the menu to both the customers and the competition.
“I wouldn’t bring ribs, because Charlie Robinson is. So there are certain things you just let certain people do very well,” he said. “For us, it’s these crab cake nuggets, because I do it the best. Certainly, in 21 years that I’ve been here, I still bring garlic bread; garlic mozzarella cheese bread. Nobody else has ever tried to duplicate my mozzarella garlic cheese bread. You can smell this garlic bread at O’Hare Airport for the next five days.”
This year’s festival runs through Sunday in Grant Park.
For Pazzo’s Cucina Italiana, the shorter timeframe for the Taste was key in their decision to take part for the first time.
“We have a great staff, but 10 days being out in the heat and the sun is a lot for us, so I think the five days is a lot better,” one Pazzo’s employee said.
This year’s Taste also features a new “Celebrity Chef Du Jour” – daily three-course meals prepared by five different Chicago chefs – for 150 people at $40 each.
Wednesday’s featured chef was Carlos Gayton from Mexique. His table was sold out well in advance for a dinner with his specialty: Jamaican glazed pork belly.
However, tickets are still available for Sunday’s luncheon by Heaven on Seven chef Jimmy Bannos. Tickets for that luncheon are available for purchase at the Taste of Chicago ticket booths located at Jackson and Columbus.
Grammy and Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson kicked off this year’s Taste concert series at the Petrillo Music Shell. Those first in line for Hudson’s concert said waiting up to 12 hours to see her was worth it.
“She is one of the most beautiful young ladies from Chicago. She went to Dunbar. She’s a Chicago girl. I think it’s wonderful, beautiful,” Joann Jackson said.
Jeff Robertson couldn’t believe how close he was able to get to Hudson.
“You have no idea. It just means the world to me. I’ve waited a long time,” he said.
It was the first time that fans had to pay to get seats on the apron close to the Petrillo stage — for $25 each — although lawn seats were still free.
Before the concert, thousands wandered the walkways in Grant Park, on the hunt for some of Chicago’s finest food.
They sampled Taste mainstays like the famed “cheezborgers” from The Billy Goat Tavern.
Foodies also got a taste of some 27 appetizers, main courses and desserts designated as healthy choices – like the Mustard-fried Catfish from BJ’s Market & Bakery, at less than 300 calories a serving.
And visitors will still find heaping helpings of funnel cake and ice cream.