Last month, over 2,000 vendors and 63,000 attendees from all 50 states and 100+ countries descended upon McCormick Place for the largest gathering of restaurant, foodservice, and lodging professionals in the world. Intended as a meeting space for industry experts and foodies of all levels, the National Restaurant Association's annual event allows vendors to showcase their products, as well as attendees to learn all about the latest hot-button issues and trends in the food and beverage industry. This year's four-day whirlwind was filled with Michelin-starred chef demonstrations, Food Network personalities, foodie tech startups, piles of gorgeous table settings, enough alcohol to keep the city in stock for the next year, an awesome Donut Robot, and of course, food, food, and more food!
For years, I had heard all about the show from various friends in the industry, but this was the first time I'd actually been able to jump into the action myself. I didn't want tackle the massive show alone (it's always more fun when you have a favorite foodie partner!), so I grabbed Diana and headed down to the premiere food event of the year with little idea of what we were really getting ourselves into. Yes, we tried to make a tentative plan, but realistically, we had no clue what we were doing - the second we walked into McCormick Place, all of our ideas flew out of our heads as we were bombarded with shiny lights, delicious food smells, and numerous passionate, friendly vendors.
While our first experience at the event was definitely overwhelming and exhausting, it was also exhilarating. Diana and I have been to some huge festivals and trade shows in the past, but never one that catered exclusively to those in the food industry; not only did this show eclipse all others in size, but also, it was such a cool experience to be amongst those in all areas of foodiedom. Typically, we're amongst the crowd that loves to eat. While that crowd was definitely well-represented, we also were amongst those on the manufacturing and production ends, as well as the service end - it really offered us a new perspective on the industry!
Here are some of our favorite eats/drinks from our day of fabulous foodie fun...
As soon as we walked in the door, we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the Nathan's Famous display (and of course, we were suddenly starving!). As a self-respecting Chicagoan, Diana took hers with no ketchup, but as a Michigan transplant, I took mine loaded with the offensive condiment. ;-)
Two of our favorites from the Wisconsin Cheese stop: the sweet, lightly smokey Smokehaus Blue from Salemville and the sharp and salty Black Pepper Romano from Stella
Monkeying Around (banana ice cream with dark chocolate chunks) and Jumping Jersey Cow (caramel ice cream with the cutest mini caramel-filled chocolate cows) from Cedar Crest Ice Cream
The gorgeous dessert displays (just look at those chocolate gelato pops!) and gelato from Itaberco. The Chocolate Hazelnut with dark chocolate crunch was my favorite... and it definitely didn't hurt that we were served by a lovely man with a beautiful Italian accent.
More beautiful desserts from Chicago Sweet Connection Bakery
The coolest cakes from Nordic Ware - I'm officially obsessed with that baby skull pan!
Another favorite cheese stop: Diana particularly loved Roth's tangy, mellow Buttermilk Blue and I fell for their earthy Buttermilk Blue Affinée.
Spring Alpine Pizza, featuring Roth Grand Cru Reserve and Roth Mezzaluna Fontina
Major Peters Cocktail Mixes, showcasing the latest trend in Bloody Marys
The crazy delicious cherries from Tillen Farms - in fact, they're so delicious that Diana immediately ordered us each jars of the sweet Bada Bing Cherries and mellow Rainier Reserve Cherries as soon as she got home!
Strudels and Nutella-Stuffed Cookies (OMG!) from Upper Crust and Bon Appé Gourmet Bakery
Products from Jones Soda - the Orange and Cream was my favorite.
The aforementioned Donut Robot from Belshaw Adamatic. This little machine was never without a crowd around it - not only were the fresh donuts hella good, but also, the auto process was fascinating!
I chose the traditional Coca-Cola ICEE, while Diana went with the Strawberry Shortcake.
The cutest little bottles of Tabasco
Maraschino Cherries from Royal Willamette
A few of our favorite British imports: Burts British Hand Cooked Potato Chips (the Guinness Rich Chili and Sea Salt & Malted Vinegar were the clear winners) and Mr. Fitzpatrick's Vintage Cordials (I loved the Rhubarb & Rosehip mixed with sparkling water).
Waffle Bites from Julian's Recipes
Jolly Rancher Slushies
Featured spirits from Leopald Bros, a family-owned and operated distillery in Denver, Colorado
Reàl Infused Syrups: currently, only the Cream of Coconut is available in stores (we found some at Binny's). I can't wait until the Pumpkin Puree hits the market (it's so good) - I foresee some delicious RumChata & pumpkin cocktails in my future!
Pluto's Paradise cocktails from the always awesome Three Dots and a Dash
Pulled Pork BBQ Sliders from Bub City
Premium-flavored salts, sugars, and seasonings from Twang - the Watermelon Man Cocktail Candy was my favorite (it would make a fab accompaniment to a margarita!).
NRA Show 2016 will be held May 21-24 at McCormick Place in Chicago, and the 2016 BAR (Beverage Alcohol for Restaurants), held in conjunction with NRA Show, will take place May 22-23.