Over 40 years Taste of Polonia Festival has grown into popular cultural event, attracting up to 40,000 each Labor Day weekend to Copernicus Center in Jefferson Park
by BRIAN NADIG
The first “Taste of Polonia” festival at the Copernicus Center in Jefferson Park was a far cry from the multiple entertainment stages and wide range of food options that now attract 30,000 to 40,000 visitors annually to the Labor Day weekend event.
“It was a fundraiser, and it was basically a band, pull tabs … one Polish restaurant and no stage, just a riser,” Copernicus Foundation chairman Hubert Cioromski said of the first Taste of Polonia in 1980.
Nowadays the festival attracts people from “a 20-state radius. People come and make it a weekend” in Chicago,” Cioromski said.
The foundation will be hosting its 40th Taste of Polonia on Sept. 2-5. It had been planning to celebrate the 40th anniversary in 2020, but the pandemic led to the festival’s cancellation two years in a row.
The foundation, which was founded 51 years ago, purchased the former Gateway movie theater at 5216 W. Lawrence Ave. in the late 1970s, and converted it to a performing arts and cultural complex, where the festival is held each year.
Initial plans had called for a restaurant and banquet service to be part of the complex, but the foundation eventually focused its efforts on preserving the 1,900-seat auditorium, which was built in 1930 and features an atmospheric ceiling.
Elvis Costello, Yes, Kansas are among some of the more famous rock artists who have performed there in addition to cultural shows that reflect the diversity of Chicago itself, Cioromski said. He added that the festival remains an important element of the foundation’s fundraising efforts, which support the maintenance and management of the building and the foundation’s charitable endeavors.
The festival has attracted former U.S. presidents Barack Obama, when he was a U.S.Senator, and George H.W. Bush, when he was the sitting president, Cioromski said A communications center was set up at an adjacent building in the event of a national emergency while Bush was at the festival, and there was a helicopter waiting not far away in the event the president had a medical issue.
“Every (Illinois) governor’s been here,” Cioromski said.
This year’s festival will include four stages, featuring rock, pop, dance music, classical and, of course, polka. Rock tributes to R.EM., Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and Chicago are among the scheduled entertainment.
There also will be bounce houses, face painting, Disney characters, tasting and cooking classes, carnival rides and games, 30-plus vendors, cultural exhibits, films and a casino.
And what’s become customary in recent years, the 15-piece Gentlemen of Leisure Band and Review will be performing on Labor Day, playing Motown, Top 40, hip-hop and an array of other popular music. Taste of Polonia is the only festival the band plays, as it performs weddings and other private events, but always attracts a big crowd to the Taste, Cioromiski said.
For more information on the festival, visit www.topchicago.org