With only a few days to go before Anthony Lazzara defends his crown as the winner of last year’s Forest Park Rib Off, the local guru of barbecue had a confession to make:
Before last year, he’d never really done this before.
Lazzara will step back into the pit this weekend for the second annual grilling contest where he will put his winning rib recipe on the line. His strategy and his ingredients will remain the same, Lazzara said, but what else do you expect from a guy who grilled his first slab of ribs only three weeks before taking the 2006 title?
“I am a big cooker, and I do like to barbecue, but I’d never really done ribs before,” Lazzara said.
The return of the Forest Park Rib Off on Sept. 15 means amateur cooks and professionals alike will have a shot at cash prizes and bragging rights as master of the flames. Last year’s event drew some 2,000 people to the picnic grove at 7824 Madison St. and organizers are expecting this weekend’s crowd will be twice as big.
Also, all three of last year’s top finishers in the day’s main event are renewing their bid for slow-cooked glory.
“On any given day, anybody can win,” Perry Bax of the Chi-Town Smokers said.
Bax and his ‘cue crew finished third in last year’s competition behind Lazzara and a team from the local fire department, led by Don Cheval, who were also first-time competitors. By comparison, the Chi-Town Smokers have won contests throughout the Midwest, including a recent state championship in Wisconsin.
That newcomers can surprise the field at any given contest is part of what makes grilling competitions so much fun, Bax said.
“We don’t look at it like it’s a little backyard contest,” Bax said of Forest Park’s Rib Off. “They put on a good show.”
Local rib mogul Charlie Robinson, the Mississippi native behind the Robinson’s No. 1 Ribs franchise, is returning to the judges’ table this year. He broke into the barbecue business after winning a 1982 contest organized by Mike Royko, former syndicated columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. Robinson had high praise for Forest Park’s inaugural event and said it was the most successful debut of any competition he has participated in.
“I think the park is eventually not going to be big enough for that event,” Robinson said.
Joining Robinson at the judges’ table is Chicago Tribune food critic and longtime barbecue enthusiast Robin Jenkins. For seven years Jenkins helped rank the quality of the ‘cue at the Memphis in May International Festival, which features the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, held annually in Memphis, Tenn.
The third judge in this year’s contest, Village Administrator Mike Sturino, is also a returning participant. Sturino acknowledged he doesn’t have the industry background that his fellow judges bring to the table, but this self-described “weekend warrior around the barbecue” promised to come prepared.
Having an amateur palate at the judges’ table isn’t a bad thing either, Jenkins said. Ultimately, taste is subjective and regardless of their experience as a judge, people know what they like.
“The whole point is it should be about a good rib,” Jenkins said. “A happy eater is as good a judge as anybody else.”
Both Robinson and Jenkins stressed patience in cooking ribs and said it will take anywhere from three to six hours to do the job right. The style of barbecue can vary, depending largely on personal taste and regional preferences. Dry ribs are rubbed with spices before cooking and brushed occasionally with a mop sauce. Wet ribs might be seasoned lightly before being thrown on the grill, but the big flavors come from heavier barbecue sauces added just before the ribs finish cooking.