The 28th Eastwood Rib Fest opens Friday. Or is it the first? The smell of ribs slow cooked by traveling grillmasters, usually accompanied by the sounds of classic rock bands, has been a summer weekend fixture for decades at the Eastwood Mall complex in Niles. Those sounds and smells return this weekend, but a new event manager is promising some changes along with those familiar touches.
This is Kelly Simon's first rib festival, but her company, Kelly Simon Event Management, has been producing trade shows and events in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and New York for 31 years. She was meeting with the Cafaro Company about bringing another event to Eastwood Expo Center when the idea came up to revive the rib event, originally known as the Mahoning Valley Rib Burn Off.
Last year was the first year without a rib fest at the mall after a noticeable drop in attendance in recent years.
Tribune Chronicle / Andy Gray
Guy Hughes, owner of Guy’s BBQ, shows off some of his award-winning ribs. He’ll be among eight rib vendors at the Eastwood Rib Fest.
"I think they started to get too much focused on the beer and the drinking and the partying," Simon said. "They weren't really family events ... You need to focus on good music, you need high-quality rib vendors and other food vendors, raise the bar of the event and make it more family-oriented.
"We still want you to enjoy eating ribs and drinking beer and having a party atmosphere, but the goal was to make the event more well-rounded."
Guy Hughes, owner of Guy's BBQ, is among those happy to see the event return. Hughes has been involved with the festival since its inception and said it has helped promote his business and his sauces over the years. He also fielded plenty of questions from people when there wasn't a festival in 2012.
If you go
WHAT: 28th Eastwood Rib Fest
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Eastwood Field, 5555 Youngstown-Warren Road, Niles
COST: $5 adults, free for children ages 11 and younger; Gold Circle seating for Georgia Satellites and Mickey Thomas for $10 and Fran Cosmo for $20
"It's a very pivotal year for the fact that we missed last year," Hughes said. "And people's expectations are very high, not only of the rib vendors but for the entertainment and the event itself. We're going to have to pull out all the stops."
Joining Guy's BBQ among the grillers this year will be Buena Vista Cafe of Warren, Texas Pit Barbecue, Old Carolina Barbecue, Hot Sauce Williams, Johnson's BBQ, Porky Chicks and Smokin' T's BBQ. Judges will determine Best Ribs and Best Sauce, and those attending the festival will get to vote for the People's Choice award. Those who cast ballots will be eligible to win a $500 mall gift certificate.
"Some are repeating from previous years, and some are coming here for the first time," she said.
Simon also wanted to try to broaden the musical offerings at the festival. The focus will be on local and regional acts during the day, and attendees will hear country, southern rock, blues and even entertainment provided by the mall-based church The Movement on the main stage..
Classic rock still dominates the headlining slots.
The Georgia Satellites, best known for the hits "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" and "Battleship Chains," will perform Friday. Mickey Thomas, who shared lead vocal chores with Grace Slick in Jefferson Starship in the '80s, will bring his incarnation of Starship to the festival Saturday. And Sunday will feature Fran Cosmo, who was lead singer for Boston, recording and touring with the band in the '90s and '00s. Joining Cosmo will be his brother, Anthony, who also toured with Boston.
Another change Simon decided to make was to move the event to the parking lot of Eastwood Field, located behind the mall, instead of having it in front of the mall. The ballpark was used before by Dominic Baragona, who started the Mahoning Valley Rib Burn Off, but he used to say he preferred being in front because the smell of those ribs wafting across Youngstown-Warren Road was his best advertising. But what they lose in visibility (and smellability?), they make up for with an improved layout.
"Eastwood Field has a natural boundary, a barrier fence, one entrance in, one entrance out," she said. "It's a beautiful setting, and there's plenty of parking next to the stadium."