A Look Back at the Beginnings of Ribfest

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How it Began

Ribfest has been a constant in the city since 1988, when The Exchange Club of Naperville partnered up with the park district to get an event going that was different than the Jaycess Last Fling.

The idea came from then executive director of the park district, Glen Ekey, who heard of Michigan’s rib cookoffs. And so, Ribfest was brought to life in Naperville.

“It’s kind of ironic that the whole kernel and idea for Ribfest came from the park district and now it’s come full circle,” said Bruce Erikson, former chairman of Ribfest.

It started out at Rotary Hill on Father’s Day with about 5,000 people, one beer area, and eight ribbers. Only one year later, they moved to Knoch Park in 1989.

And almost 30 years later, last year’s Ribfest brought in 30 times that starting number – 150,000.

“Having to do primarily with entertainment, that’s really what we’ve learned over the years, that’s the big thing that drives people to Ribfest,” said Erikson. “The ribs are important and that kind of gives us a hook. But there wasn’t a particular year where all of a sudden Ribfest just took off.”

Turning Point

It might not have happened over night, but in 2007 and 2008 the club made $1 million for the first time with acts like Randy Travis and REO Speedwagon. They were able to get back to $1 million in 2016 and 2017 with Sheryl Crow and Toby Keith.

The Ribs

Of course the entertainment is important, but it is called Ribfest for a reason.

“I believe we have some wonderful ribbers. When I managed the ribbers many, many years ago in the 90’s we had 22 ribbers. Now I believe we have 12. But they come on a circuit and they’re very good people and they do a great job,” said Emy Trotz, member of The Exchange Club of Naperville.

Remembering Ribfest

Ribfest-goers all have their favorite moments, and long-time members of The Exchange Club are no different.

“I just enjoy being around all the people, I’m a people watcher. I just like to go and see the people and I see new friends and I make new friends and I just enjoy being there,” said Trotz.

Ribfest is planning on moving to Romeoville next year and The Exchange Club will continue to host it from its new home.

“It’s been very gratifying for me to see it grow and to spend 32 years,” said Erickson.

Naperville News 17’s Aysha Ashley Househ reports.