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WingFest Title Goes to Wicker Park's Rodan

By Quinn Ford | February 24, 2014 7:42am
 The 15th annual WingFest on the Near West Side featured costumes, contests and the best wings in town.
Wingfest 2014
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NEAR WEST SIDE — Wing lovers Jordan Asbury, Sean Campbell and Alberto Gonzalez walked into Sunday's WingFest donning utility belts that would make Batman jealous.

"We got a belt with a beer-can holder, a blue cheese holder, zip ties holding paper towels and wetnaps," Gonzalez said, pointing to the accessories draped around his waist. "Two buckets to carry the wings."

"Dipping trays," Campbell added. "And tissues for your nose in case it starts running 'cause these wings are too damn hot."

The trio were among 1,600 people who packed into the Bailey Auditorium on the Near West Side Sunday afternoon for the 15th annual WingFest.

The event, which has grown from a crowd of just a couple hundred people in its first year, featured 24 wing-slinging restaurants from the Chicago area competing in a number of categories.

Founder Chris Ryan, whose Lodge Management Group owns a number of bars in the Gold Coast, said the fest has made it "15 clucking years" because of the culture that has developed around it.

Wing-lovers tailgate in the parking lot before the fest, and many wear chicken-themed costumes to get into the spirit.

But the main difference between WingFest and others like it, Ryan said, is WingFest "absolutely pays no favorites."

"You don't have celebrity judges. You don't have a restaurant that unduly influences the whole process," he said.

"Fowl judges" for the five categories — best mild wing, best hot wing, best exotic wing, best BBQ wing and best of fest wing — are chosen at random from attendees.

Jeremiah Hunt, who attended his second WingFest Sunday, was one of the judges randomly selected to pick the best BBQ wing. He said he stuck to certain criteria in making his pick.

"You look at the appearance, the taste, the aroma ... I look at texture as well," Hunt said. "For the most part, lot of good wings here."

And Hunt said it's not just the wings that keeps him coming back.

"I'm not missing it again, ever," he said. "It's the atmosphere ... No matter what bar you're rooting for, it's a great time."

Wicker Park's Rodan, a newcomer to WingFest, took home the "Best of Fest" title, along with best mild wing and rookie of the year.

Rodan's chef, Art Ledda, said he entered the contest just to have a good time and had "no expectations" to take home the top trophy.

"It's amazing. To participate in such a great event and to win as a rookie, I'm in awe," Ledda said.

Ledda said the win validates his decision to leave his corporate job of nine years to become a chef. He said Rodan will be "most definitely" be returning next year to defend its titles.

The fest also featured men and women's competitive eating contests. Katrina Fraley took home the title of "Lady of the Wings" after eating the most wings in three minutes. Fraley, who also won the title in 2012, came up short in 2013 after choking on a wing, but the Lakeview resident found redemption Sunday.

The event also brought out some wing-loving politicians, like Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) and Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th).

A portion of the proceeds from the fest goes to a Near West Side charity run by Burnett's wife, Chicago Neighbors United.

Winners of WingFest include:

Best BBQ Wing — Reggie's, 2105 S. State St.

Best Exotic Wing — Output Lounge, 1758 W. Grand Ave.

Best Hot Wing — Timmy O'Toole's, 622 N. Fairbanks Ct.  

Best Mild Wing — Rodan, 1530 N. Milwaukee Ave.