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Hot Chili, Cold Beer: Hanging Out at the Opportunity Knocks Chili Cook-Off

Whiskey chili takes first place as locals from Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park compete for top chili cook at the fifth annual Opportunity Knocks Chili Cook-Off.

By 4 p.m. at Healy's Westside in Forest Park on Sunday, the crowd was packed in, well lubricated and cheering at the television screens across the bar for their team in the NFC Championship game.

The atmosphere was festive, to say the least, for the annual Opportunity Knocks Chili Cook-Off.

Over 500 people attended the fundraiser on Sunday; looking to catch the game, eat some of the area's best chili and raise funds for an important community group. Opportunity Knocks was started by two Oak Park brothers to serve the needs of the area's developmentally disabled young adults. The organization offers recreation and fitness sessions, as well as field trips and self-advocacy training.

"My brother was born with Down Syndrome," said founder and president Phil Carmody. "After high school, we found that there weren't a lot of opportunities [for events and programs like the foundation provides] and we wanted to do something about that."

Carmody said the event was a huge success again this year, and if it continues to grow, they'll need to look for an even bigger venue in the future.

"We had a hundred more people show up over last year," Carmody said.

This is the fifth year the brothers have held the chili cook-off fundraiser and February marks their organization's third anniversary.

Attendees certainly seemed happy to be at Healy's and supporting the organization. The beer flowed and bellies were full of some reportedly terrific chili.

George Lazewski, a former Oak Park firefighter and friend of the Carmody family, said the event just gets better every year.

"I had three bowls this year," he laughed. "I was really glad I wasn't a judge. There were an excellent, vast variety of tastes. Plus, it's for a great cause. The beer is cold and the chili is hot."

Chili Cook-Off Winners Announced

Three local celebrities judged the cook-off this year:

  • Jeff Mauro: host of Food Network's Emmy-nominated television show Sandwich King and $24 in 24
  • Brendan O'Connor: owner of Big Guys in Berwyn.
  • Steve Skrine: owner and grill master at Skrine Chops.

Cooks were eliminated over three rounds, leaving only three contenders out of 24 cooks this year. The final three were judged for first, second and third place.

Former Oak Parkers—now Chicagoans—Nick Vizzone and Tim Bode were named the cook-off's first place winners this year. That's not a huge surprise, they said. They won the contest in 2010 as well.

"A lot of heart," said Vizzone, about what made his chili the top choice this year. "Oh yeah, and whiskey. Some in the chili and a little in the cook, too."

According to the cooking duo, a little Redbreast Irish Whiskey is what made their chili stand out this year.

Tom Ciezki, of Chicago, took second place in the contest this year, followed by Kevin and Andy Z.—who didn't provide their last names.

"It's all about the spices," said Ciezki of his second place-winning recipe.

Ciezki goes to the market to buy his spices whole, before doing his own grinding. He also ground his own beef this year.

"You gotta get the balance just right," he added.

While he's happy he made it into the top three this year, Ciezki said he plans to give the first place winners another good run next time around.

All in all, the event raised about $20,000 for the Opportunity Knocks organization to continue their mission in the community—that's up $10,000 from last year's haul, according to Carmody.

"The [cook-off planning] committee did a great job this year," Carmody said. "You also have to tip your hat to the staff at Healy's [Westside].

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