The 20th Annual Chicago WingFest took flight April 13. More than 9,000 lbs. of wings were served by 30 different restaurants. These Windy City culinary professionals showed the poultry industry that wings are much more than barbecue and buffalo.

Imagine a stuffing-type breading, complete with sage and thyme spices. Instead of dipping in blue cheese or ranch, the accompaniment is umami-rich turkey gravy and a side of celery sticks. How about Hot Cheetos-encrusted smoked wings or crispy grilled wings covered with nacho cheese sauce and dipped in crushed tortilla chips and salsa for dipping?

This year’s event featured a collection of chefs from some of Chicago’s best eateries competing for various prizes including the Best of Fest, and the Best Mild, Hot, BBQ and Exotic Wing awards. A number of them shared with MEAT+POULTRY their secrets to delicious, succulent wings, often with a unique flavor twist.

First place in the Exotic category went to Granero, a gastropub in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, for its signature elote wings designed to resemble Mexican street corn, which is also on the menu. These are fresh wings tossed in a hearty house-made sauce consisting of mayonnaise, butter, cotija cheese and chili powder. No dip needed. The restaurant’s other wing specialties include guava buffalo, coconut tamarind and pineapple jalapeno. The restaurant prides itself on using never-frozen wings to deliver unsurpassed freshness and flavor.

This is because freezing may change the muscle texture and bone color of wings. If not frozen quickly and thoroughly, freezer burn may occur, causing the meat to dry out, even develop off flavors. And if the package is dropped while frozen, cracks can occur. With fresh wings, you eliminate the chance of such defects.

A newcomer to the Chicagoland area, Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, also swears by fresh chicken wings. The company marinates its wings overnight in rosemary and garlic then roasts them in a 900˚ F anthracite coal oven. This gives the wings a very distinct earthy, smoky taste.

The innovation does not stop there. Anthony’s unique wings are topped with caramelized onions and served with focaccia. Again, no dip needed.

Estrella Negra in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood took second place in the Exotic category. This is a modern Mexican-Latin street eats restaurant. Chef and owner Oto Michael served his specialty at WingFest: tamarind chicken wings. They are what he describes as “an all original dish made of estrella negra style.” Featured on the restaurant’s menu, the wings are covered in his homemade spicy, sweet and sour tamarind sauce. They get topped with goat cheese crumbles and chives.

View slideshow of Chicago's WingFest