Swan Song

July 2019 View more

Ribfest will move out of Naperville in 2020.

Back in 1988 when the Naperville Exchange Club launched Ribfest, its goals were modest: entertain the city for a weekend and raise a little money for a local organization fighting domestic violence.

To that end, the club recruited a touring group of ribbers to barbecue around Rotary Hill over Father’s Day weekend. And though rain turned the grassy hillside into a muddy mess, the club raised enough money to buy a new set of tires for the charity’s van, says Rick Grimes, a charter club member who now serves as the executive director of Ribfest.

In its three decades, Ribfest has grown into a four-day festival that fills Knoch Park with food, music, a carnival, family entertainment, and more—an extravaganza that has raised more than $1 million some years for agencies that work to protect children from abuse and prevent domestic violence. To date, the Exchange Club has raised more than $17.5 million for the cause, including the club’s own Project HELP mentoring program for parents.

“We want to be there for them,” Grimes says. “They do such wonderful work, and the need is so pervasive.” 

And that, Grimes says, is at the heart of the club’s decision to move Ribfest out of Naperville beginning in 2020. The Naperville Park District is making changes to Knoch Park, and it and other sites in Naperville won’t afford Ribfest the time (four days) or space (20 acres) the festival needs. Running a smaller or shorter festival just wouldn’t raise enough money.

“We need to be able to do what we do on an annual basis,” he adds. “We feel as a group that this is our responsibility.”

The move, likely to Romeoville, will be the biggest adjustment yet for a festival that has changed every year. The layout has changed, the number of ribbers has gone up and down, some years have featured two music stages, and the dates shift to connect July 4 with a weekend.

In 2008, Ribfest was set to end on a Sunday, which can be a slow night when people need to go to work the next morning, Grimes said. Organizers decided to spend a little extra money on a high-profile performer to help draw a crowd and booked Trace Adkins.

“For whatever reason, we hadn’t realized we needed to be bringing in country stars,” he says. “He just packed the place, and that opened the door to booking country artists.”

Grimes’s personal favorites have included Peter Frampton, Pat Benatar, Styx, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Heart. But one booking always will hold a special place in Ribfest history, he says.

A band with a Naperville connection—the drummer had grown up in town—contacted organizers one fall and asked to play at the following Ribfest. Between signing the contract and taking the stage, Hootie & the Blowfish, featuring drummer Jim Sonefeld, released an album.

“Suddenly,” Grimes says, “we had the hottest band in the nation.”


What: Naperville Exchange Club’s 32nd annual Ribfest Why Proceeds support local organizations working to eliminate child abuse and domestic violence
When: Noon to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, July 3 to 6
Where: Knoch Park, 723 S. West St., Naperville
Cost: $5 for South Park access to ribbers, family area, carnival and business expo; general admission tickets including full-park admission and Main Stage access are $35 for Billy Idol and Living Colour on July 3; $20 for Flo Rida and KC & the Sunshine Band on July 4; $35 for Brantley Gilbert, Randy Houser, and Joe Hanson on July 5; and $25 for Bad Company on July 6. Ticket options also include front of stage, VIP, and skybox (various prices).
Info: ribfest.net and eventbrite.com

Photo by James Hoch