Whatever your flavor, from mussels to chocolate-covered strawberries to African drum circles, the 5th Annual Forest Park Progressive Dinner had you covered.

The event, organized by the Forest Park Main Street Association and sponsored by an assortment of businesses from all around Forest Park, drew in a record crowd of 450 despite the sweltering Sunday afternoon heat.

“It’s a great way for the businesses to kind of band together. There are so many new businesses on [Madison Street]. I think something like this really highlights all the new businesses, everything we’ve all been doing to make this street what it is,” said Abigail Seiple, manager of O’Sullivan’s Public House.

Though restaurant owners and retailers enjoy seeing familiar faces and mingling with the Forest Park regulars, the hope is that the event will bring new customers to Forest Park each year.

“Once they’re here, it’s a cinch”they’ll come back and bring their friends,” said Laurie Kokenes, executive director of the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce.

The first progressive dinner took place in 2000 with 300 diners and six restaurants. This year, 11 restaurants participated and 450 people signed up to sample the cuisine. The evening was organized by a committee of Forest Park residents made up of Dorothy Gillian, Christine Malone, Georgia Kmetz, Deb Michalak, Cassie Golden, Carolyne Keeley and Tracy Cusimano.

“So much planning goes into it, and when it all comes together, it’s just so much fun. It makes everything worth it when you see the street so alive,” said Gillian.

Three months to plan

The planning process begins about three months before the dinner, Gillian said. Forest Park residents usually sign up first, but in the weeks before the event, the out-of-towners begin to register.

“We get a lot of people from out of town because of people in town who are proud of their town and want to show it off to their friends,” she said.

Though many Chicago area neighborhoods host summer festivals similar to the Taste of Chicago where area restaurants bring their food to one central location, the Progressive Dinner allows visitors to experience not only the food, but the entire Madison Street atmosphere.

“A forum like a progressive dinner is really designed with the underlying premise that Forest Park is a destination point,” said Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone.

Organizers hope that on their way to the restaurants, people will take note of the many retail stores and other businesses that they might not notice when driving by.

“It gives people an awareness of what’s on Madison,” said Gillian. “So many people say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were here. I’ll be back’.”

Tickets to this year’s event sold for $40 to the general public, and $35 to members of the Main Street Association. Diners each visited three randomly selected restaurants, first for appetizers, then for soup and salad, and finally for their entrée, though by that time many appetites were conquered by the generous portions.

Throughout the night, walkers stopped to admire colorful chalk sketches on Madison Street’s sidewalks and to enjoy outdoor performances by local musicians. Each artist was sponsored by a Madison Street business.

Each diner also received a coupon book packed with discounts to participating restaurants and stores.

Participating restaurants in this year’s dinner were Molly Malone’s, Bistro Marbuzet, Caffe de Lucca, Jimmy’s Place, Francesca’s Fiore, Shanahan’s, Flavour Cooking School, Healy’s West Side, Cocina Lobos, O’Sullivan’s and Horan’s Snug.

In past years, diners were assigned to a specific restaurant for dessert, but this year organizers decided to give the crowd a chance to come together after the meal at the Forest Park National Bank and Trust Parking Lot.

Those with room in their stomachs for a little more enjoyed an assortment of desserts served at booths set up by Caffe de Lucca, Bistro Marbuzet, the Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor, La Piazza, and Harrison Street Café.

Others sipped on dessert wines provided by Famous Liquors and listened to the sounds of the Magawa Studio African Drum Circle and the Summer Kwai Trio.

This year, two new establishments joined the progressive dinner, and both plan to make it a permanent part of their yearly routine.

Denise Norton, chef and owner of Flavour Cooking School, located at 7401 Madison St., said that her first Progressive Dinner was a huge success.

She already had one customer purchase $150 worth of merchandise with one of the coupons from the Progressive Dinner, and received two registrations for classes on Monday from customers who were introduced to her business through the dinner.

Flavour opened in December of 2003 and provides cooking classes, retail merchandise, and food service for private events.

For the progressive dinner, they served prosciutto-wrapped lemon chicken bundles for an appetizer, chilled peach soup with lavender, a mixed mesclun salad with champagne peach vinaigrette, and grilled achiote pork chops with roasted tomatillo sauce.

“The only complaint we got was that people wanted more,” said Norton.

Though Norton said she and her staff had a great time cooking all through Saturday and most of Sunday, she admitted that her taste of the restaurant business was a bit stressful.

“Just to do that every once in a while is an OK thing, but if I had to do that on a daily basis, I think I’d lose my mind,” she said.

This year’s other new participant, Caffe de Lucca, enjoyed an equally successful evening, according to General Manager Julie Croney.

“We had a great turnout,” she said. “People were very receptive to our food, our experience, and our staff.”

Caffe de Lucca, which added its 7427 Madison St. location to its previously existing Bucktown restaurant in December, 2004, served up its signature Chicchetti, an assortment of appetizers, as well as a minestrone soup, an antipasti salad, and a penne with tomato cream sauce and lemon chicken for the entrée.

“We saw a lot of people we knew, but for the most part it was a lot of people who weren’t even from Forest Park. We really hope it’ll bring us some new customers.”

Croney said she especially enjoyed seeing all of the restaurants on Madison Street working together to satisfy customers and bring in new ones.

“All the restaurants are in competition, I guess, but everyone supports each other, and competition breeds business,” she said.