By Chris Peters | World-Herald Correspondent
Taste of Omaha has something sweet planned this year. Desserts are the focal point for the food festival, which runs May 31 through June 2. Omaha chefs and local restaurants are encouraged to add more sweets to their booths in celebration of the event's Sweet 16.
Dishes like the baklava from Katie's Greek Restaurant and the root beer float from Piccolo's, a Warren Buffett favorite, are returning. Other sweets, like a bourbon bacon brownie from Signatures at the Doubletree Hotel, are making their debut.
More than 40 restaurants are expected to serve food this year. The free festival also features live music, children's activities and vendor booths.
Mark Mancuso, event producer since the festival's inception in 1998, said the variety of food makes Taste of Omaha unique compared to other festivals in town.
"People really enjoy (the music) as a part of the event, but I think the chefs and the culinary is what makes us a really special event," Mancuso said.
Taste of Omaha will spread its events out between six stages and two locations, Heartland Park and Lewis & Clark Landing. Three music stages, a chef's stage, a children's stage and a dance stage will host events on all three days.
The chef's stage is adding more dessert-themed presentations this year to emphasize its theme. Some presentations, like ice carving, return to the stage from last year.
Main dessert presenters for the chef's stage include Aaron King, executive chef at Signatures, who presents Friday night, and Shari Priester, who owns Cuppycakes Sweet Boutique and appeared on the Food Network's Cupcake Wars, presenting on Saturday night.
When not on stage, many chefs will be available to chat at their booths.
Sean Privitera has been to Taste of Omaha the past four years. The 29-year-old marketing analyst from Omaha said the personal touch of meeting with chefs keeps him and his wife coming back each year. It's an experience he says you can't find at most restaurants.
"It's just nice to see them try and promote their business," Privitera said.
Another reason he likes going to Taste of Omaha is the party-like atmosphere. Even though he and his wife go alone, they always seem to bump into old friends.
"You can see people around town that you haven't seen in a while," Privitera said. "It's more of a social vibe than just going to a restaurant.
"It's just like a big party."
That's exactly what Mancuso had in mind when he helped develop the idea for Taste of Omaha in 1998. He wanted to showcase Omaha's best food.
"We modeled it very closely to the successful events we have seen in Chicago, Buffalo, (N.Y.), and Denver, Colo.," Mancuso said.
"Great food and great entertainment in one area for free -- it's a part of the recipe that has made this such a success."
Although admission, parking and most entertainment are free, the food is not. Attendees purchase tickets that they trade for food or other fun. Privitera estimates that he and his wife spend around $30 per day on food at the event, but he said a couple could easily spend $50 total by adding drinks at the beer garden.
While that may seem like a lot, most vendors actually sell food below the normal price they would charge at their restaurant, Mancuso said. Omahans looking to try a wide variety of food from around town can do so for relatively cheap.
"Our theme has always been more tickets, more fun," he said.
There's a lot more to taste than just the food at this weekend's Taste of Omaha festival.
Live music, amusement park rides, dance lessons and stage shows will be scattered about Heartland Park and Lewis & Clark Landing during the three-day event.
People can catch island rhythm music, emerging country music and British invasion music all in one day. They can ride a zipline and immediately join a flamenco dance if they're up to the challenge.
Although the food is the focal point of the event, it's all the entertainment surrounding the food that has allowed Taste of Omaha to be successful for 16 years.
"It's different than if you go to Red Sky (Music Festival) or Maha (Music Festival)," said Marty Conboy, a former Omaha city prosecutor and current lead guitarist for Clockstoppers. "It really is a thing where we can play a variety of music.
"It's the jukebox of sound. Just like the food there, you have the choice of hearing a lot of different sounds."
This year's lineup includes 27 bands, ranging from ethnic acts like Polka and Irish folk music to country and classic rock cover bands.
Friday's focus is primarily on country music, featuring up-and-coming country singer Frankie Ballard. Also on Friday, Landslide and Killer Queen, who are actually one band taking on multiple acts, will cover the greatest hits of Fleetwood Mac and Queen, respectively.
Music on Saturday will span from 1950s R&B, when Cornell Gunther's The Coasters perform "Yakety Yak," to Boston's greatest hits, as former Boston frontman Fran Cosmo takes the stage for songs like "More Than a Feeling" and "Foreplay/Long Time."
Sunday's music highlights local flavor, beginning with Conboy's band, Clockstoppers, who have been together more than 40 years since they formed in high school, and ending with Pink Kadillac, a variety cover band that will play the festival's last show at 6 p.m.
Subby Anzaldo, who manages the event's professional entertainment, said Taste of Omaha wanted to have something to appeal to all age groups.
"We've always had a variety, but I think this is probably the best list of variety things," Anzaldo said.
An entire stage is devoted to children's entertainment again for 2013, featuring a clown blowing up balloon animals, an animal show and a magician.
On the other end of the age spectrum is Paul Siebert, a musician who has played at nursing homes for seniors since 1986. He'll perform on one of three music stages at 11 a.m. Saturday.
New to 2013 is the World Tour Pavillion, which features a dance stage. The area will feature ethnic cuisine, music and dancing, in addition to a few amusement park rides like the zipline.
"We're going to have a little Irish, a little flamenco, a little Greek and a little fire dancing," said Mark Mancuso, the event's producer. "It's a fun stage."
Outside of food, amusement park rides and a few other activities, most things at Taste of Omaha are free. Mancuso said the committee that puts on Taste of Omaha doesn't do it for a profit; they simply want to show off what Omaha has to offer.
"We're a showcase of Omaha's entertainment," Mancuso said.