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[Gonnella Bakery, circa 1905, on Sangamon. Owner Alessandro Gonnella is on the far left, seated in a delivery carriage. | photo courtesy Gonnella]

Chicago's Gonnella Bakery turns 125 this year.

To celebrate, it's collecting and posting stories from customers on its website, gonnella.com. (There may or may not be some free bread and bread products at stake for those who send in stories.)

Tom Marcucci, Gonnella's vice president of sales and marketing, whose grandfather was founder Alessandro Gonnella's brother-in-law, says it is the oldest bakery in Chicago, and likely in Illinois.

Think about that -- 125 consecutive years in business. The bakery is older than the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jack, Lenox china and Salisbury steak.

The story goes much like you'd expect:

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Irish soda bread bakers, bring it.

Saturday, as you know, is the South Side Irish Parade Day Family Fest. And with that, of course, will be an Irish soda bread contest.

Reilly's Daughter in Oak Lawn used to host a fierce soda bread contest that routinely drew upwards of 200 entries. Former owner Boz O'Brien started it in 1977 as a way to get rid of a gift certificate to an Irish imports store. One year, one of the more, ahem, mature competitors ("this little old lady," as O'Brien puts it) baked a pair of $5 bills into her bread hoping to influence the judges, some of whom were local politicos. Like we said, fierce.

Indeed, the Reilly's Daughter contest, which ran under O'Brien's watch until 2003, was one of the inspirations for family fest organizer Grace Kuikman, who's in charge of the contest at the Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W. 111th.

"It was huge," Kuikman says. "I talked to a friend of mine who used to work at Reilly's Daughter. I do have some of their traditions fueling my ideas."

The rules:
Entries are to be wrapped in plastic or foil, then put in a paper or plastic bag marked with your name, address and phone number. Breads are to be in by 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Each loaf will be assigned numbers and blind-tasted by judges.

Kuikman, who is Dutch but a self-proclaimed foodie, is one of the judges. The others are Tom Baffes, owner of the neighborhood market County Fair Foods, 10800 S. Western; Jean Marie Quigley, owner of the Beverly Bakery, 10528 S. Western; and Beverly Arts Center president Bill Siegel.

Breads will be judges on appearance, texture, feel and flavor, Kuikman says. There will be points for creativity, too, because "every family seems to have their own way of making it," she says.

Inside tip, or a way to win over at least one judge: Better-than-average soda breads "have to have a good consistency of raisins in there -- that's always a plus," says Baffes. "And I like a kind of free-form type of bread."

It costs $10 to enter the contest. The winner splits the pot with the fest, and will get their recipe printed in the community paper.

If you're feeling the competitive fires, here are two recipes worth a look. The first is from Sun-Times reporter Maureen O'Donnell's mother. The second, from one Beverly McFadden, ran in our Swap Shop column a few years back.

It's all in good fun. Though, if you know the South Side Irish and their soda bread ... not really.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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