Enjoying a picnic while listening to a concert under the stars at Ravinia is quintessential summer in Chicago.
But how do you straddle the line between the extravagant (is it really necessary to bring the linen and china?) and the haphazard (we’ve all been there, flying into Jewel one hour before show time, grabbing the must-have grapes, wine and cheese)?
Also to consider: the hot weather and crowded Ravinia buses.
More than 600,000 guests will descend upon Ravinia in Highland Park to see more than 140 events this summer. So unless you want to skip the whole picnic-on-the-lawn experience and dine at one of Ravinia’s on-site restaurants (such as the upscale, reservation-only Park View, buffet-style Mirabelle or the casual Ravinia Market), have a plan.
Or to make it really easy, Ravinia offers picnic boxes to go, starting at $48 for two people. The boxes can be ordered in advance or purchased on site.
“Travel light to Ravinia, that’s my motto,” says Jen Wisniewski, co-owner of the farm-to-table Chicago-based restaurant Bread & Wine, which offers customized picnic baskets featuring homemade charcuterie, artisanal cheeses and wine. “The simpler you keep it the less you have to bring and the less you have to pick up in the dark to bring home.”
To create the perfect Ravinia picnic, we asked husband and wife duo James De Marte, a food consultant and chef, and Rachel De Marte, an event planner, as well as Wisniewski of Bread & Wine for expert picnic tips.
When considering your menu, Wisniewski, who co-owns Bread & Wine with Lisa Fosler Kelly, says to remember the purpose of your trip. “Ultimately, it’s about sitting down, having a little bit to eat, focusing on the music and your friends,” she says. “What’s better than some pate and cheese on bread with some mustard and gherkins? That’s it. It’s an elevated picnic. Relaxed but refined. It’s not a rave that’s going on. It’s music and it’s comfortable and we hope that basket will symbolize that. Even if you do forget your utensils you can just tear off some bread and dip it into the pate and break off some cheese.”
With summer here and fresh produce in season, it’s a great time to enjoy a casual yet elegant Italian-inspired picnic.
“People tend to pack picnic baskets with a French or American theme, but Italian food and wines are a bit more exciting in our world. And universally loved to boot,” says Rachel De Marte.
Having worked in Italy for 10 years, James De Marte, of JDM Culinary Consulting, recommends preparing a diverse menu inspired by various regions in the country such as Piemonte, Veneto and Sicily.
He suggests starting with a classic, vegetarian-friendly dish like “Caponata Siciliana,” or roasted eggplant relish, which can be found at a local specialty store like Bari, a“Tri-Color Panino” sandwich, featuring prosciutto, mortadella, provolone, arugula and goat cheese, an heirloom tomato salad and finishing off with a favorite summertime Italian dessert, such as “Peach and Olive Oil Cake.”
Anyone can make these easy yet delicious dishes, but your menu could feature a “great combo of some store-bought items and some homemade if one didn’t have the time to make all,” he says.
The chef, who has worked at the gastronomic La Peca in Vicenza, Italy, as well as the five-star Hotel Bauer in Venice, says an easy way to elevate the picnic experience is by paying extra attention to details, such as choosing high quality cheeses and olive oil for dipping bread. A field trip to local Italian specialty shops like Bari, Nottoli and Caputo’s may be a goldmine for your picnic basket — and for home.
“Extra virgin olive oil is very important. A good every day oil is Lucini Extra Virgin. It’s widely available and it’s the real deal,” he says. “Splurge at Eataly and get the Dinoabbo Affiorato Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Liguria. It’s handmade from 100 percent Taggiasca olives. One of the best I’ve ever tasted.”
Once your menu is complete, consider the beverages. Wine is generally the drink of choice on the lawn, and Wisniewski advises bringing a festive sparkling water such as San Pellegrino for those who are not drinking. Rachel De Marte suggests starting off the evening on a fun note with a cocktail. “I’d throw in a batch of Negronis to kick off the night — the classic aperitif made of gin, sweet vermouth and the Italian bitter. Simply pre-make in a glass carafe with a lid,” she says.
Food, wine and drinks may be your focus, but don’t forget the accoutrements.
“Bring lots and lots of water, an amazing blanket, and always remember knives, forks and napkins. Bring silverware that you won’t miss in case you leave it somewhere,” Wisniewski says. De Marte likes using a wine box to transport items to the venue, which can then be flipped over and used as a table.
Not sure how much to bring? To each his own.
“I believe that more is more and I love options. That means that I’d have at least one of everything for all. Especially since people are grazing, cocktailing and chatting,” says Rachel De Marte.