All the elements were there but something didn’t feel right about Ribfest being in Wheaton – Chicago Tribune
Like many of you, I was disappointed when I learned back in 2019 that Ribfest was moving out of Naperville. The plan at the time was to hold it 10 miles away in Romeoville, but that never happened thanks to the pandemic.
Last weekend, I was excited to finally go to the event again. However, it wasn’t in Romeoville or, sadly, Naperville, but at the DuPage County fairgrounds in Wheaton. We’ve had a friendly rivalry with that town ever since they stole the county seat from us in 1867 and now they’re stealing Ribfest? What’s next, the carillon?
Seriously, I have a lot of sympathy for the organizers, the Exchange Club of Naperville. As the popularity of the event grew in our city, so did the complaints from many of our residents. The fest brought in thousands of people from across the country and they just didn’t like the traffic and the swelling numbers of people walking our streets even if they were also supporting our fabulous bars and restaurants.
In its 32 years, Ribfest has raised more than $18 million for the prevention of child and domestic abuse in our community. It’s brought together hundreds of volunteers providing us with the perfect place to celebrate at first Father’s Day, then Fourth of July, and now Father’s Day once again.
When Ribfest was in Naperville, it took Grumpy and me a few years to work out the best way of getting there and back. The first year we relied on the school bus shuttles. Having just arrived from England, the idea of sitting on an iconic yellow bus was charming until we’d bumped along in the rickety seats. Trying to find which stop to use wasn’t too bad on the way there, but a nightmare when you leave in the dark with thousands of other people. When it took us two hours to get home, we decided to come up with another plan.
The word on the street was there certain places you could park within walking distance. That worked better, although it usually meant a lengthy trek with lawn chairs slung across our shoulders.
You know what the DuPage County fairgrounds site has that Knoch Park doesn’t? Parking for thousands of people! As we drove into the grounds Sunday afternoon, we passed actual lots where we could have parked. But knowing there was no entrance fee this time, we decided to splurge on paid parking closer to the gate. It was only $10 all day and we knew the money was going towards a good cause.
The walk from there to the gate was four minutes. Without having to buy or show tickets, it was easy to walk straight in. We spotted some lucky volunteers selling beer in the shade of a purpose-built shelter used for the county fair. Turning right took us to the carnival, left towards the concert area and the rib vendors, neatly tucked into an area with a few tables and chairs in front and bleachers to sit on.
Overall, I found the layout worked very well and although it’s more compact than Knoch Park, I certainly observed all the key elements — ribbers, concert stage, carnival, food vendors, static sponsor balloons and the ubiquitous lines of porta potties.
To be fair, there were fewer music stages and rib stations than in the past, but I’m not sure this really detracted from the event. After two years, it was great to be there at all.
The weather was as hot as it’s likely to be in July and as I sat resting while Grumpy stood in line for an hour to collect our rib dinner (just like normal!), something started to niggle me. Something was missing and I couldn’t think what.
As it grew nearer to the time when Brett Eldredge was due to appear, the park started to fill up. There may have been fewer people than in previous years but there were still thousands of visitors. The difference was that I didn’t know any of them.
In four hours of walking round the park, I only bumped into one person I knew, and he lives in Downers Grove. Where was the Naperville crowd? Could it be they refused to attend because it’s no longer on our doorstep? The truth is it’s no longer a Naperville event.
In a very unscientific and totally unreliable survey of my friends on Facebook, I came to the following conclusion. Napervillians did attend, but only to serve as volunteers helping the organizations they so proudly support.
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Other comments included things like, “I didn’t know it was on” and “It’s too far to go” and “Father’s Day just isn’t a good time for Ribfest for us.” The fact that I didn’t get a huge response says a lot in itself.
I realized then that perhaps the greatest joy of Ribfest wasn’t in nibbling those lip-smackin’ ribs (currently a whopping $35 for a full rack plus sides) or rockin’ out to your favorite band. It was a great place for bumping into friends you may not have seen since the previous year or perhaps even longer.
It was an event that put Naperville on the map as being home to one of the best RibFests in the country. It was somewhere to share not only your patriotic pride, but local love. It felt like the whole city was there to celebrate, from newbies like me to old-timers who remembered the very first time on Rotary Hill.
As I write this, I don’t know how many people attended this year or how much money was raised. My guess is less than previously if only because it’s a new venue and we’re still in a pandemic. I think it will go on to better things over time, and we enjoyed it enough to return.
But will the people of Naperville support it? For the Exchange Club’s sake, I hope they do, but sadly I’m not so sure they will.
Hilary Decent is a freelance journalist who moved from England to Naperville in 2007.