Chicago gets mac ‘n’ cheesy


Courtesy Mac and Cheese Festival

The winner of the Golden Noodle at the 2014 inaugural Mac and Cheese Festival was Kitty O’Sheas’ sweet, salty and spicy mac and cheese dish.

By Arts & Culture Reporter

Chicago residents can upgrade from microwavable mac and cheese by stuffing themselves with the real deal at the annual all-you-can-eat Mac and Cheese Festival on Oct. 24 at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum.

Organized by Melinda Joseph, a 2007 marketing and communications alumna and adjunct professor in the Communication and Media Innovation Department, and co-founders Cece Gonzales and Ozzie Gromada Meza, the annual Mac and Cheese Festival, now in its second year, will feature more than 50 restaurants.

Joseph said she and Gonzales started an event company called Raymi Productions, which organizes events throughout Chicago, including “Taste of the Gold Coast” and “The Taste of Streeterville.” 

“We loved the events but found it restricting to only be able to invite restaurants in Streeterville to ‘Taste of Streeterville’ and Gold Coast restaurants to ‘Taste of the Gold Coast,’” Joseph said. “We wanted to create a citywide event we could invite restaurants all over to

participate [in].”

Joseph said the idea for the festival came about because Gonzales, who is from Peru, had never tried macaroni and cheese and has been interested in the dish since moving to the U.S. in 2001.

“Last year was the first year [of the festival], and we were overwhelmed with the positive response we received from the event,” Joseph said. “This year, we will have two sessions—a lunch and a dinner—and we added the VIP opportunity and merchandise.”

Similar to last year’s event, the restaurants on this year’s lineup will submit their dishes for a chance to win the prestigious Golden Noodle Award. 

“The Golden Noodle Award is given out by a combination of five ‘foodie’ judges and people’s choice,” Joseph said.

The award is given for the main category of Best Mac and Cheese, and runner-up categories of Best Presentation and Most Creative, Joseph added.

One of this year’s judges is food blogger and food photographer Rachel Bires. 

“One of the PR companies working with the festival emailed me and asked if I’d be interested,” Bires said. “This is my first time judging food, but I’m really excited to do it.”

Bires said she likes the varieties of mac and cheese that are served at the festival.

“I would like to see a good consistency with the cheese and also a mixture of cheeses,” Bires said. “I don’t want to see just regular mac and cheese. I want to see some interesting flavors.”

Kitty O’Sheas, located in The Hilton Chicago at 720 S. Michigan Ave., took home the 2014 Golden Noodle Award. 

“We met the creators when they came on a tour at [The Hilton Chicago], and they told us they were going to have a Mac and Cheese Festival,” said Mario Garcia, head chef at Kitty O’Sheas. “We said we would love to participate in the event, and they didn’t believe that we would be interested, but we were very interested.”

Garcia said mac and cheese is typically considered a simple meal, but it can be crafted into a delicious and special one.

“Last year, our idea was to create a dish that was inspired by Chicago,” Garcia said. “Our [mac and cheese] was created on the idea of Garrett’s Popcorn ‘Chicago Mix.’”

Garcia said Kitty O’Sheas’ dish included cheddar mac and cheese layered with corn bread, drizzled with salted caramel and garnished with spicy onions. 

Kitty O’Sheas will enter the Golden Noodle competition again this year, but Garcia could not reveal much about the dish  because the recipe is a secret.

“[This year’s dish] will have a little bit of the same tricks we did before,” Garcia said. “We have a garden on our rooftop, and we have a couple beehives, so our mac and cheese is going to have a little honey from those beehives.”

Joseph said the event is set to return again next year, and the festival is growing each year. 

“I think it was a genius idea to come up with the Mac and Cheese Festival, especially in the City of Chicago, [which] is known for great food,” Garcia said.

Tickets for the event are $60, and VIP tickets are $100. They are available for purchase at or at the UIC box office.