Pumpkins rule the season in north suburban Highwood

October 14, 2011 (HIGHWOOD, Ill.)

But the Hungry Hound says one town on the North Shore is going a few steps further as it attempts to set a world record next week.

Last year, the community of Highwood came together during its annual pumpkin fest to carve and light more than 26,000 pumpkins. In order to beat Keane, New Hampshire, they have to light an additional 6,000 this year.

Beginning Wednesday, the entire community comes together for races, games, hay rides and, yes, lots of pumpkin-related dishes.

Carving pumpkins is a rite of passage in the Midwest. But somewhere along the way, the village of Highwood went from innocent childhood activity, to big-time tourism push, as it goes for a world record this year.

At the historic Alex's Washington Gardens, they're getting into the spirit.

"It's kinda hard to believe. I mean, they put scaffolding everywhere throughout town...and fill them with carved Jack O'Lanterns," said Jim Stoecker, owner of Alex's Washington Gardens. "Everybody decorates the front of their place and people buy pumpkins and they put the name of their restaurant in rows of pumpkins on the scaffolding."

They also cook with pumpkins. At Washington Gardens alone, they'll ladle pumpkin soup then garnish it with tart, dried cranberries, apples and honey. Lasagna gets an orange tint with the aid of pureed pumpkin.. and of course, there's plenty of pie, just in case you can't wait until Thanksgiving.

Just across the railroad tracks, Gabe Viti - often referred to as the unofficial mayor of Highwood, for his multiple restaurants here - is going to be offering specials at Miramar Bistro, which offers flavors from the Mediterranean. Bite-sized tortelloni are stuffed with pumpkin, then tossed with pine nuts, smoky bacon and brown butter, which render the pasta nutty and rich; a dose of parmesan cheese adds saltiness, while fresh sage offers a seasonal reminder.

Viti says a lot has changed since he opened his first restaurant here in the early 90s, and the fact there will be more than 30,000 pumpkins on his front doorstep next week proves it.

"My family has been here for 100 years. So, obviously since I've opened Gabriel's Restaurant 18 years ago things have changed dramatically. I mean, it's just a really quaint little town right now," said Viti. "Hopefully, we're hoping for great weather, and a lot of people to turn out to enjoy it and enjoy all the restaurants and bars and Highwood as well."

The fun gets under way on Wednesday and lasts four days, but most of the restaurants will continue to offer their pumpkin-themed dishes through the end of the month.

Miramar Bistro
301 Waukegan Ave., Highwood

Alex's Washington Gardens
256 Green Bay Rd., Highwood

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