WHITING | Pierogi Fest, an annual nod to the city's Eastern European heritage, began with a 100-foot stretch of downtown with one booth selling its namesake dumpling.
From its humble beginnings, Pierogi Fest, now in its 18th year, features more food booths than any festival in the Midwest, outpacing even Taste of Chicago, event organizers say.
“This is the fourth year in a row that we had more food than they have,” said Tom Dabertin, first vice president of the Whiting-Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce.
Throughout the years, the festival also grew in size to span all of downtown Whiting, taking up a half-mile stretch of 119th Street.
This year, a projected 250,000 people will come to Whiting during the three-day event to sample food from 72 food booths, with 20 dedicated to selling pierogi, see the Twirling Babushka Brigade waltz down 119th Street at the International Polka Parade and shop for tchotchke.
A founder of the festival, Marty Dybel, said he knew the chamber had a hit when people lined up down the block the first year to get pierogi in the summer heat.
“It's a word that people were familiar with,” Dybel said, “and we just took advantage of it.”
The event known for its off-the-wall sense of humor (news releases were sent out bragging about bathroom accommodations and to inform the public Tom Cruise was invited) has drawn international acclaim. Oprah Winfrey and food magazine Saveur have named Pierogi Fest as a top summer food attraction. The festival has been featured on television across the world in Poland, Germany and Slovakia.
This year's festival, themed The Year of the Halupki (stuffed cabbage), starts Friday and runs through Sunday. Kicking off the festival at 7 p.m. Friday is the parade, made famous by its mad cap antics, lawn mower drill team and its queen, Carol Jacobson, who this year will dress up as “Queen Elizabeski” in honor of the real Queen Elizabeth's 60-year reign.
Jacobson said she expects many of the parade participants to poke fun of the Olympics that start in London this weekend. She's heard there will be a swim team, Dumpster divers and shot putters throwing cabbages.
“You have to be stupid and silly to be in this parade,” Jacobson said. “It can't be anything serious.”
Jacobson said Pierogi Fest put Whiting on the map, explaining people come from as far as Japan and Canada for the festival.
“There are people from all over the world, which to me is amazing that they come for that little dumpling,” Jacobson said.
Many of the pierogi vendors come back over the years. Jesus Alvarez, owner of Lynethe's Deli and Pierogies in Whiting, has had booths at the festival for eight years.
Alvarez starts preparing a month before Pierogi Fest. He makes pierogi flavored with potatoes, sauerkraut and spinach and also is known for his stuffed cabbages that he sells packed with meats, rice and spices.
“I've been here in Whiting for almost 10 years, so when I found out about Pierogi Fest I was so happy,” Alvarez said. “It makes business for the whole town. The reason for Pierogi Fest is to help the whole community.”
Pierogi Fest is a destination event, like The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the Tulip Time Festival in Holland, Mich., and Gary's South Shore Air Show, said Speros Batistatos, South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority president and CEO.
“It's a little bit of a tongue-and-cheek approach about being from the region and all things Polish,” Batistatos said. “I think it's an opportunity for a little less political correctness that I think everyone could use a little more of.”