Rain held out for the seventh annual New Orleans North Fest on Friday night, and the event was in full swing from 5 to 11 p.m.
The streets of downtown Joliet turned into the streets of New Orleans Friday with vendors, music, food, patrons and street performers of all types. The Joliet Chamber of Commerce-hosted fest was open for anyone 21 years or older to experience the Mardi Gras atmosphere of New Orleans.
Harrah’s Casino of Joliet, the grand presenting sponsor of the event, offered purple, green, red and gold beads on tables throughout the fest.
Every year about 6,000 people line the city’s streets. With the fest opening at 5 p.m., the streets already started to get crowded with people sampling food and listening to music.
Tom Grotovsky, owner of the Great American Bagel in Joliet, thought of the idea to have a New Orleans-themed festival.
“I was sitting one day, looking out at downtown Joliet and thought it reminded me of New Orleans,” Grotovsky said.
“After one of the board members brought the idea of having a festival similar to Bourbon Street, we decided to go with it,” said Mary Jaworski, president of the Joliet Chamber of Commerce. Seven years later, the festival continues to increase in numbers.
“We have such a creative staff and committee that were thrilled that the weather cleared and we had such a beautiful night,” Jaworski said.
New Orleans North is the unofficial start to the early part of summer with festivities bringing in a crowd of about 8,000 people.
On Friday, Van Buren Street was turned into “Food Alley,” where 20 vendors showcased their food to re-create a New Orleans atmosphere. From chicken to crawfish, people lined the street to get a taste of what it is like to be in New Orleans.
Parmesans Pizza in Frankfort has been a food vendor since the fest began.
Jeff Thompson, Joliet Chamber of Commerce food committee chairman, said “over 20 vendors applied for this year’s fest. We accepted only 12 to fill the street. We invited the eight vendors from last year and added four more.”
With 12 food vendors filling up Van Buren Street, Thompson indicated they were not going to add more in the future to keep the fest small and personal.
Moe Joe’s, located in downtown Plainfield, brought authentic New Orleans cuisine to the fest in the forms of crawfish etouffee and Andouille sausage.
“We’ve been wanting to do this every year. We couldn’t wait to get down here,” owner Jamie Littell said.
But Moe Joe’s was not the only new restaurant added this year to the fest. Bojo’s, from Naperville, was there with a vegetable tempura and chicken on a stick.
“We are lucky to come down here tonight and enjoy what Joliet has to offer,” owner Tony Notarangeli said.
The longest line led to the Big Fish Grill, located in Channahon, where the most popular dish was the soft shell crab sandwich. For the past five years, Big Fish Grill has been a vendor at the fest, providing authentic New Orleans food.
But walking to the vendors on Chicago Street from Jefferson Street, it’s not easy to pass up the side alley, where musicians play.
One of the most anticipated musical groups was Joliet native Sophie Lee Lowry, who has since moved to New Orleans. Miss Sophie Lee and The Parish Suite performed on the main stage to a large crowd.
In addition to bountiful food and music, art also is a feature of the festival. Grotovski thought creating a poster for this year’s fest would enhance the New Orleans spirit. Joliet artist, Ruben Calderon, was commissioned to paint the poster for this year’s theme.
Calderon was also one of the vendors selling his artwork at the fest.
Calderon has survived cancer twice and found art therapeutic.
“I used art as an outlet to cope with battling cancer,” Calderon said. “I am hoping that my work will be here even when I’m not anymore.”
The night ended at 11 p.m. with the drawing of the grand prize for a free trip to New Orleans.