Chicago’s Windy City Smokeout Finds Success With Soulful Barbecue

Now in its 5th year, the barbecue festival is beloved by attendees and pitmasters alike

Bub City Wings were one tasty option

The fifth annual Windy City Smokeout drew the crowds this July with hot country bands, a wealth of craft beers, and the best barbecue from around the country. More than 43,000 people flooded the festival site, which has more than doubled in size from its inaugural year. Together, they devoured 8,000 pounds of brisket, 1,400 racks of ribs, 5,000 pounds of pork shoulder, and 5,000 chicken wings.

The event introduced RFID wristbands for entrance and cashless transactions. The electronic chips have become widely used at larger festivals, and it is an indicator of how far the Smokeout has come. “It’s something we’ve wanted from the beginning,” said head pitmaster and festival founder Doug Psaltis of Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group. “Every year we invest in something, and this year it was the tech.”

No matter the size or the sophistication, Windy City Smokeout is focused on the barbecue and the pitmasters serving it up. When asked if barbecue was the secret to the festival’s success, Psaltis was inclined to agree. “I think it is a little bit of comfort,” he said. “Especially now, people want something to be proud of again, and beer and barbecue do it.”

Though he was born in New York and comes from a fine-dining background, Psaltis’ connection to barbecue runs deep. Family trips took him to barbecue country, where they would attend cook-offs and festivals. It was a time for bonding and relaxation, and that feeling is what Psaltis wants for the Windy City Smokeout.

Fox Bros Short Rib

Lauren Knight

Fox Bros Short Rib at Windy City Smokeout

His fellow pitmasters can attest to the atmosphere that Psaltis has built. “We love this fest,” said Carey Bringle of Nashville’s Peg Leg Porker. “They’ve made this a place you want to be. They really take care of us.” Bringle should know; he and his crew attend eight to 10 events a year, serving up Western Tennessee-style barbecue with devotion and care. That commitment to the traditional flavors of the region has helped Bringle build a national brand, making converts of many — even Andrew Zimmern —with his award-winning dry ribs.

“Festivals like this are like a dysfunctional family reunion,” said Jonathan Fox of Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q. He and his twin brother, Justin, brought their love of Texas barbecue with them when they moved to Atlanta, and Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q has become a staple of the city. Events like the Windy City Smokeout not only allow them to get their barbeque in front of a new audience, but also to reconnect with old friends. “We all know each other here, and it’s great to meet up with old friends.”

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That sense of camaraderie permeates the entire festival, lending the Windy City Smokeout a jovial, friendly atmosphere unlike any other event in Chicago. As it grows, Psaltis is confident that it will retain that down-home community spirit. “The Windy City Smokeout 100 percent still embodies my original vision,” he said. “It has grown organically, and we will continue to make a better, not bigger, festival.”