The Ultimate Rib Smack Down

Five couples, three grills and 75 rib recipes …

It started out as a few guys grilling ribs outside their townhouses in the city: They traded beers, a little trash talk and a few tastes. And out of those original delicious ribs, a tradition was born.

Now in its 15th year, the Rib Fest is an annual event held at Jean and Andy Fies’ home in Evanston. Jean says the rules are simple: a new recipe each year, any cut or type of rib is allowed—they’ve had Asian, Indian and Italian recipes—and judging is somewhat blind. The ribs are started at home, then transported to the Fies’ for finishing on three grills in the backyard.

Allison Bacon is noted for having completed one of the most ambitious recipes, including a reduction of veal that took 24 hours. “Not worth it,” she says.

She’s not the only one taking it seriously. Greg Hanson grew Habanero chilis in his Libertyville garden. Andy and Jean have attended Steve Raichlin’s BBQ University, and Allison and her husband, Doug, who still live in the city, have gone to their summer home in Indiana to use their smoker, then driven back with the ribs.

So what makes the perfect rib? First, a good butcher. According to Winnetka’s John Goodman, the group has tried every butcher in the area and many are devoted to their particular butcher’s cuts. And although they’ve tried beef and lamb ribs, only spare and baby back have ever won.

They all agree on “low and slow” for the initial cooking, but no one agrees on the exact time. Betsy and Robert Segal smoked their ribs in their Green Egg for two hours with wood chips from whiskey barrels. Other couples slow cooked for just an hour and some went for more than three.

Dry rubs are more popular than a marinade or brining. And they don’t have to be from scratch. Julie Goodman loves the Milwaukee blend made by Spice House.

Once the ribs are done, the voting and eating begins. Jean provides the sides—all fabulous—to “clear the palate” between ribs.

This year, the votes were evenly spread and the judging was down to the last vote—drum roll, please—the winner by one vote: Couple #5. A sweet victory and pig trophy for Greg, especially since his wife, Peggy, arrived from the airport just as the ribs were being served.

“When I was making the rub, one of my kids said he was praying that no one would get hurt,” says Greg. Not only was no one injured, everyone in the group was happily licking fingers, swapping opinions and gathering ideas for next year’s competition.

Want to try the winning rib recipe? We’ve got it here.