It can be hard to tell among all the cover bands and light-beer vendors, but Chicago festival season is actually a very cosmopolitan time. For every manifestation of American gluttony, there's a worldly event offering a glimpse into the colorful cuisines and diverse neighborhoods of the city. Many of these ethnic parades and festivals are still on the horizon, offering a great way to take that trip abroad without spending a lot of cash. Here are our favorite ways to close out the summer on an international note - and the best places to go to continue your culinary travels.
Ukrainian Days Festival August 22-23 at Smith Park, 2526 W. Grand; $5 donation Weekend trip:
The city's Ukrainian culture holds strong, and this festival aims to prove it, with music, dance, arts and crafts and food from the region.
Extended stay: For true tastes of the Ukraine, rely on Sak's Ukrainian Village Restaurant and Lounge, for hearty plates of sausage and fried potatoes, and Old L'Viv, for a buffet of comfort fare like pink borscht with sour cream and chicken legs.
Taste of Greece August 29-30 on Halsted between Van Buren and Monroe; free Weekend trip:
In true Greek form, this two-day festival in Greektown brings together food, music and dancing in bountiful, overflowing fashion. Included in the Big and Fat festival are two live music stages, hosting Greek bands Hellas 2000 and Hellenic Fire; lessons in sirtaki
and other traditional dances, belly dancers, Greek acrobats, Jesse White tumblers, children's games and face painting; and plenty of Hellenic eats such as gyros, lamb chops, shish kebobs, and grilled octopus. Opa!
Extended stay: For a taste of classic Chicago Greek food, stick around Greektown at popular joints like Parthenon and Greek Islands. Or get a taste of something other than flaming cheese (say, duck gyros) at the upscale Taxim in Wicker Park.
Taste of Polonia September 4-7 at Copernicus Center; $6 ($3 for seniors, free for kids 12 and under) Weekend trip:
Polish Chicago, otherwise known as Polonia, stretches back to the 1850s, and has influenced local culture, cuisine, religion, and the arts. This year's 30th anniversary of the Taste of Polonia sees a smorgasboard of food (pierogi, kielbasa and potato pancakes in addition to Thai, pizza, and ice cream from local eateries), music (Polish and American bands in the polka, blues, and rock categories), and entertainment for kids and adults (Polish cooking classes, carnival rides, an arcade, and a concert on Sunday evening from the Padweewski Symphony Orchestra).
Extended stay: If you're still craving Polish love when it's all said and done, head to Smak Tak for potato dumplings, baby back ribs and pork loin heaven; or pick up some Wiekska Polish and head cheese to take home at Andy's Deli. And of course, don't forget about the city's most famous pierogi at Kasia's Deli.
Central American Parade September 6, on Montrose from California to Kimball; free Weekend trip:
The Spanish colony comprising Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica declared independence on September 15, 1821. You'll experience a mosaic of cultures at this parade.
Extended stay: Sample Costa Rican fare at Irazu, where plantains are omnipresent, and tacos stuffed with skirt steak, pan-seared red snapper filet and tinted squid beckon. For more authentic eats, try some Salvadoran pupusas (small, hand-pounded cornmeal cakes stuffed with a variety of fillings) at Pupuseria Las Delicias or Pupuseria Restaurant Cuscatleco.
German Day Festival and Von Steuben Day Parade September 11-13; free Weekend trip:
Baron Friedrich von Steuben came to America to offer his services to General George Washington, helping shape the revolutionary army into a disciplined and courageous fighting machine. Beer, brats, polka bands, general revelry, and a prideful parade are among the pleasantries of the German Day Festival, and it all comes together with a Saturday parade beginning at Lincoln and Irving Park.
Extended stay: For an extra dose of gemutlichheit (coziness) head to Laschet's Inn for spaetzle and smoked pork butt, as well as chicken paprikash and veal weiner sausage served with potato salad and sauerkraut, washed down with your choice of 10 draft beers or over twenty bottles from the homeland. Resi's Bierstube is another creation of German home-cooked goodness, with potato pancakes, several types of wurst and enough varieties of beer to necessitate frequent visits.
18th Street Mexican Independence Day Parade and 26th Street Mexican Independence Day Parade September 12 & 13; free Weekend trip:
Fiercely proud Mexicans celebrated their independence from Spanish rule on September 6, 1810, as that day Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla initiated a revolt against the ruling power. Mariachi bands, exotically decorated floats, Mexican flags, handmade crafts and games make these parades popular with families.
Extended stay: There's no shortage of authentic Mexican eateries in the city, from no-frills spots like Carnitas Uruapan and Carniceria Leon to upscale restaurants like Rick Bayless's Topolobampo and Frontera Grill. For something in the middle, try Nuevo Leon (in Pilsen or Little Village), a popular family destination where beef tongue, chicken in mole sauce and tripe soup are just a few of the delicacies on hand.
Celtic Fest Chicago September 12-13 in Grant Park; free Weekend trip:
The annual Celtic Fest celebrates the cultures of the British Isles, Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, France, and Galicia, Spain. Well-known bands such as Gaelic Storm take the stage in the Petrillo Shell, while the men-in-kilts contest, a coffee and tea garden, kids' entertainment and local step-dance troupes provide fun and folkloric culture for all ages.
Extended stay: For pure Celtic cuisine, grab a table at the Gage to nosh on a peppered salmon club, lamb stew vindaloo, and for brunch, a traditional Irish breakfast of eggs over easy with rashers, sausage, black-and-white pudding, sausage and tomatoes. If you're currently experiencing something close to wallet famine, there are plenty of less-pricey pubs with authentic fare, including Duke of Perth and the Grafton Pub & Grill.
Chinese National Day Parade September 27, 230 W. Cermak; free Weekend trip:
Occurring only once every five years, the Chinese National Day Parade exhibits all the components of the country's culture: expect dragon dances, music, and martial arts in a vivid display of Chinese fanfare.
Extended stay: There are plenty of opportunities for a real meal in Chinatown; we'd recommend Lao Sze Chuan's menu of pig ears, Peking dumplings, and other delights, or Dragon Court, which offers specialties like lobster or crab meat in a Cantonese sauce of ginger and black beans. For something a little different, head north to Sun Wah Bar-B-Q Restaurant - and bring your appetite.