Mayor Byrne recalls origins of Chicago 's premier fest

Former Mayor Jane Byrne is known for the following: "The Blues Brothers" movie filmed under her watch; the paralyzing Blizzard of '79 that preceded her election; and her move into the troubled Cabrini-Green housing project.

She can also claim credit for kick-starting The Taste of Chicago, an annual showcase of local delicacies and live music that attracts more than 3 million people to Grant Park each summer. It's considered the city's premier summer event.

Now retired and living near the Magnificent Mile, the septuagenarian Byrne discussed the Taste's modest origins as a one-day festival along a three-block stretch of Michigan Avenue on the Fourth of July in 1980.


Two hospitality-industry gurus - steakhouse owner Arnie Morton and hotel executive Jim Sheerin - pitched the idea to her after observing a New York food fest.

"They described this Taste of New York. ... It was a neighborhood party. ... So they thought it would be wise to hold a ( Chicago ) Taste and people could come from where I live to Michigan Avenue . ... They could go down there and everybody could shake hands, chat a little bit and get this very inexpensive (food) sample.

I said 'Yeah, I think that will be fun.'"


The city had three months to coordinate the event.

"There were only supposed to be 15 booths, maybe 20. And then they went about recruiting. We blocked off streets. There was not that much to it. It was like a neighborhood festival - in our minds."


It turned out to be much bigger.

"Oh, gosh. I should have known. I have a sister who lives in Lake Forest (a north suburb), and she called me two days before. And she said to me, 'What kind of a party are you having down there?' ... I said, 'Donna, forget it. It's a neighborhood thing.'"

She said, 'I'm warning you because the butcher was telling me about it.' She's naming all these people. I thought, she's got it wrong. I paid little attention."  

On the day of the fest, the mayor's handlers were worried about the crowd's size.

"When we pulled up and I got out of the car, the police had been right. You were in this swell of people. ... You couldn't move west or you'd bump into a building, you couldn't move east."


She called Morton.

"I said 'Arnie, what are we going to do?' He said 'Mayor, we're feeding them, we're getting it out.' We had to send out for food because we didn't want a riot. I thought 'My God, if anyone trips, they're going to get trampled.' No one was happier to see it end than I was."


Organizers re-tooled the event the following year.

"They critiqued it after. They said 'Mayor, it wasn't what we thought it would be, but it ended up being better.' I said I agreed. They said that we should move it to Grant Park. That way, we could accommodate the crowds next year."

... It was great that way. Kids were down there for the fireworks. It was very family-oriented. And once again, people showed up.

Mike Ramsey is Chicago reporter for GateHouse News Service. He can be reached at (312) 857-2323.


BREAKOUT             Chicago 's 27th Annual Taste of Chicago runs from June 29 through July 9 in Grant Park; most days, it is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. More than 60 restaurants and vendors are participating. Cost is $7 for a strip of 11 tickets, which can be used to purchase food and beverages.             For details, go to