A warm Chicago welcome by U.S. tourism folks

CHICAGO – This is a town – and a country – that knows how to throw a party.

Folks attending the International Pow Wow (U.S. tourism) event here were the recipients Sunday of the kind of treatment usually accosted only to members of the International Olympic Committee.

First came a morning reception at the top of the John Hancock Tower/observatory, a 94 th and 95 th floor extravaganza with killer views of this magnificent city on the shores of Lake Michigan. When you’re up here this high, you get a real sense of how wonderful a job they’ve done of protecting their precious Great Lakes shoreline.

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel (former chief aide to President Barack Obama) boasted, “We have 26 miles of protected shoreline in Chicago.” It’s stunning to see a long stretch of nothing but parks and beaches and parks as far as the eye can see both north and south of the city. There are rides and attractions on the Navy Pier and some wonderful museums and such along the waterfront here and there, but all the buildings are kept back away from the water’s edge. Unlike some cities we know that have raped and pillaged their never to be duplicated waterfronts and stacked them with ugly, glass towers.

Emanuel noted that Chicago has something like a quarter of the top 100 hotels in the country and a couple dozen Michelin starred restaurants and perhaps the best art museum in the country, the Art Institute of Chicago. For my money, it beats anything in the world outside of the Louvre in Paris.

Emanuel called Chicago “the most American of American cities,” and I see what he means. It’s brash and bold, but also welcoming and friendly and incredibly handsome. It’s like Toronto in some ways, but so much larger and also larger-than-life.

They had jazz bands playing at a media brunch at the Hancock Tower on a gloriously clear day and also had food and beverages from all over the city. I was blown away in particular by a drink called the Saturn, made some highly-rated mixologists at a bar called Three Dots and a Dash . It had passion fruit, lemon juice and clove syrup. If you matched those with rum you’d have a sickly sweet combo. But they poured it with gin, which I think is absolutely brilliant as the juniper and other bits in the gin cut the sweetness of the passion fruit perfectly. The drink, which was topped with a fresh, purple orchid, was refreshing and tingly and might be one of the top two of three drinks I’ve had anywhere in the world. Kudos, guys; just fabulous.

I was lucky enough to do a food tour of a couple great spots, including the absolutely smashingly good Grace – rated by the Robb Report as not only the best restaurant in the city but best in the world – as well as a fun spot called Publican. More on those later in the pages of Star Travel, especially more on the incredible Grace and the dynamic duo of manager Michael Muser and star chef Curtis Duffy.

There was a reception at the JW Marriott to celebrate the announcement of a new office in Toronto for the folks at Brand USA , who oversee attempts to boost tourism to the U.S.

Brand USA chief Chris Thompson said the U.S. has a continuing love affair with Canada, which provides more tourists – 23 million or so last year – than any country on earth and also kicks in more money to the U.S. economy than any foreign nation, roughly $25.5 billion.

Later in the evening the Chicago folks held an absolutely stupendous reception for attendees at their vast Cinespace film studio hangars. There were fireworks, acrobats climbing velvet ropes, singers and dancers from Motown the Musical, vast walls covered with Chicago videos, mock Chicago Transit Authority trains and dozens upon dozens of drink and food stations dispensing everything from rabbit ravioli to miniature Chicago hot dogs and Chinese pot stickers.

An incredible start to what should be a great series of meetings highlighting all the U.S. has to offer tourists.

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