A fair to remember
With three county fairs on the horizon, it's time for some serious pigging out. Use our guide to the best of the booths to save stomach space for the good stuff.
DuPage County Fair
2015 W Manchester Rd, Wheaton, 630-668-6636
Wednesday 25–July 29, $7 entry fee
Perhaps you couldn’t tell by the entertainment lineup, which includes Beatles cover band American English and grandstand-fillers Plain White T’s, but thanks to insanely good food options, this is one of the best fairs around. For the last couple of years, we’ve made a beeline for the red, white and blue crest that marks the Knights of Columbus’ cream-puff stand. Sure, the money goes to a good cause, but we’re in it for the palm-size, filled-to-order pastries sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Keep your buzz by heading for Erma’s Sweet Rolls, where the namesake cream cheese–slathered rolls fight for best-of-booth status with Erma’s bread pudding as well as her biscuits and gravy. The Libbertt ice-cream stand does shakes and malts, but we go for the pineapple whip—fresh, frothy and refreshing.
Look for the “hawg dawgs” stand, but skip them (they’re really just hot dogs) and go for the deep-fried cheesecake; it’s proof that someone figured out how to make cheesecake even richer and more gluttonous.
To come down from the sugar rush, get some veggies in your system at the DuPage Marines stand, where men in uniform do a good job roasting corn on the cob and whole sweet potatoes.
O’Brien’s turkey legs are usually nice and juicy, thanks to a few trips around the rotisserie and a constant crowd to ensure freshness.
If the country air (that is, the scent of deep fryers and barnyard animals) gets you hankerin’ for a taste of the South, the Boiling Point serves sweet tea and boiled peanuts, those love-’em-or-hate-’em slimy little suckers.
For a bloomin’ onion minus the restaurant-chain atmosphere, hit the fried–cheese curds stand. That stand’s crispy onion is one of those premade frozen deals, but the seasoning is familiarly addictive and the fresh lemonade is a good pair. (And don’t say we encouraged you, but spiking the lemonade with that fifth of vodka in your bag helps build the courage to ride those janky carnival rides.)
Lake County Fair
Rtes 45 and 120, Grayslake, 847-223-2204
Tuesday 24–July 29, $7 entry fee
A little more country than the other two, this fair is where you’ll see some dead-serious livestock auctioning, vegetable judging (you know, whose zuke is the biggest and so on), tractor pulling and “muttin’ bustin’?” (that would be little cowboys and cowgirls holding on to bucking sheep for dear life).
In between the engrossing events, there’s plenty of good eats to be had. The Grayslake-based minichain restaurant Sammies serves a decent Italian beef from its stand at the fair, or you can opt for ’cue from North Chicago barbecue stalwart Hillery’s. Robert Hillery has been serving his rib tips and pork shoulder at the fair for more than 20 years, but fans of smoky goodness may not fall in love with the charcoal-grilled meats.
For the smoky stuff, try the Brothers Ribs stand. Its Lake Zurich restaurant sports a hickory-fed Southern Pride smoker that turns out great rib tips, baby backs and pork shanks dubbed “KC Wings.” Everything is smoked at the restaurant and tossed on the grill at the fair for a bit to warm up.
Our favorite sure thing is Squire’s Dog Haus’ hand-dipped corn dogs. Not only does the stand’s facade sport a Germanesque awning, but the dogs come in a supersize 12-inch option for the starving fairgoer.
For sweets, the best of the fest is Anderson’s Candy Shop, a 90-year-old company based in Richmond, Illinois, which brings more than a dozen of its Swiss-style chocolate bars to the fair. More tempting are its freshly fried cinnamon-sugar doughnuts (they give away the holes for free!) or a scoop of the stellar vanilla ice cream with a bit of the sugar-spice mix sprinkled on top (you have to request the combination, but owner Leif Anderson will happily oblige).
Kane County Fair
525 S Randall Rd, St. Charles, 630-584-6926
Through Sunday 22, $5 entry fee
When it comes to the three big county fairs—DuPage, Lake and Kane—this one ranks last when judged strictly on food. You can still find decent eats, but the main draw here is the activities: motocross, a real-deal rodeo, a damn fine demolition derby, an alligator show, Swifty Swines racing pigs and (wait for it) the Neville Brothers. Okay, so maybe not the last one.
Fans of classic fair food should be choosy with corn dogs—many stands hawk them, but the Fantasy Fair booth hand-dips its dogs, which fry better and taste fresher. Same story with funnel cakes—you can find them in three spots, but opt for the red-and-white trailer by the kiddie rides. That’s Bill Johnson’s stand, and thanks to a combo of superhot oil and a fantastic family recipe, his funnel cakes aren’t quite as oily as the others.
Across from the racing pigs you’ll find a dependable roasted-corn stand (go for the charred ears), but save room: This year there will be a few new booths, including one frying up Wisconsin cheese curds, a turkey-leg stand, and a comparatively gourmet operation dubbed Green City Foods that will sell seafood tacos and a “crazy” black-bean burger. The latter might come in handy if the pig tent has you reconsidering your carnivorous ways.