Big Heat 2017 is Newcity’s biennial listing of Chicagoans who wield largely behind-the-scenes influence. These are not chefs, sommeliers, bartenders and others who serve us what we like to eat and drink. Rather, this year, we’re listing the owners, media personalities—journalists, bloggers and PR people—business leaders, as well as food-oriented entrepreneurs, including farmers, beer/spirit makers and coffee roasters.

To compile our list, we queried leaders in Chicago dining culture, people who’ve been on the list themselves and others in the industry. We based our decisions on those recommendations, while taking into account performance and promise: we considered not only people who’ve had an impact on the world of dining but also those who are positioned to have an impact in years to come.

Some anger is an anticipated reaction to this list. That’s partly because we live in an angry age but also because we have probably left off one or more of your favorites—perhaps even you. Apologies. All lists are unfair, limited by a lack of omniscience and sometimes swayed subjective preference. Our team has simply done our best to call out many major and even some lesser-known names of people we believe are, beyond the kitchen and bar staff, shaping the dining experience in Chicago, making it what it is today and what it will become tomorrow. (David Hammond)

Rich Melman and Molly, RJ and Jerrod Melman
Founder and Partners/Children, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises
For the Melman clan, it’s all about family, trust and lessons learned from dad, Rich, one of Chicago’s dining titans. For RJ, Molly and Jerrod, being successful comes from thinking small to get big—a lesson passed on from Rich who grew a business empire from the world’s first salad bar at R.J. Grunts to include over one-hundred restaurants nationwide. In a city of great restaurant groups, RJ, Molly and Jerrod say “friendly Midwest competition” is what keeps innovation in Chicago moving forward. Currently the trio is most excited for July’s Windy City Smokeout, the annual festival of smoked everything, along with beer and country music, in a massive parking lot by the river. If they had to choose a favorite Melman spot, it would have to be R.J. Grunts. “It’s where mom met dad. Without R.J.s, we wouldn’t exist” says Jerrod.