Uniformed and undercover police officers will descend on the Taste of Chicago amid concerns about violence, and organizers of the annual lakefront festival will also do their part to make the event less popular for potential troublemakers.
For one, the entertainment this year will be more low-key. Country music legend Loretta Lynn and singer Natalie Cole are among the performers.
After local and national media reports that roaming mobs were attacking shoppers and snatching their belongings in and around the Magnificent Mile section of Chicago's Michigan Avenue in recent weeks, officials worry the Taste of Chicago could quickly turn from a showcase event for the city to one that harms its reputation and tourist industry.
"Given the string of incidents that occurred early this season, there is an increased sensitivity to that," said Brendan Reilly, a member of the City Council whose ward includes Grant Park, the site of the festival, which began Friday. "We want people to know that Chicago remains a clean and safe place to visit."
Concerns have only been heightened by suspicions that the Police Department's unusual decision to close a popular beach just north of downtown was tied to threats of gang violence at another beach and not, as police maintain, related to the heat.
As a result, this year's Taste event will look different than it has in the past, including 2008, when a shooting on a nearby street left one man dead and four wounded and led to harsh criticism of then-Police Superintendent Jody Weis.
The festival is widely seen as new Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy's biggest — and most visible — test since he was hired by new Mayor Rahm Emanuel several weeks ago. The event will be watched closely by an army of police officers on the ground, from above in a helicopter and by surveillance cameras.
And though the department won't give numbers, police say there will be more undercover officers working the festival than ever before.
"They'll have a significant number of undercover police officers working the Taste, doing some behavioral profiling and identifying problems before they occur ... to intervene quickly before they escalate," Reilly said.
He said part of that job will be spotting and keeping a close eye on known gang members.
Along with the increased police presence, there will be fewer entrances to the festival, continuing a trend that started after the 2008 shootings that allows police to get a better look at who is coming into Grant Park.
"It sends a message to everyone to behave," Reilly said.
As for the event itself, Reilly and others say they hope the different approach to entertainment and the one big missing attraction — a July 3 fireworks show that the city said it canceled for economic reasons — will discourage potential troublemakers from attending.
"We were very clear we were turning this into a more family friendly event," said Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Park District, which for the first time took the Taste over this year from the mayor's Office of Special Events.
That means some of the performers who attracted older teenagers and young adults have been replaced by singers like Lynn and Cole, who appeal to older audiences, and acts like 13-year-old pop singer and pianist Greyson Chance, who is for a much younger set.
The event also will be shutting down earlier. It will close at 8:30 p.m. rather than 9. And on July 3, when the fireworks show would normally have brought hundreds of thousands of people to the lakefront, the festival will shut down at 6 p.m. instead of after 9 p.m.
"We thought it would make it that much easier to let people out with a little bit of daylight," Maxey-Faulkner said.