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Food lovers have no bone to pick with Western Pennsylvania Rib Fest

Ron and Valerie Conaway's booth for rib cookoffs

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Western Pennsylvania Rib Fest

When: 5-11 p.m. June 27, noon-11 p.m. June 28, noon-8 p.m. June 29

Admission: $5, free for children under 12

Where: Westmoreland Fairgrounds, Pleasant Unity


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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Thursday, June 26, 2014, 8:55 p.m.

Pit master Ron Conaway has his eyes on the prize at this weekend's Western Pennsylvania Rib Fest.

He and his wife, Valerie, who hail from Willis, Texas, have won awards from Ashtabula, Ohio, to Wilmington, N.C., for their smoked ribs, which aren't just good, according to Ron; they're “lip smackin', tongue teasin', belly rubbin', bone lickin' good.”

Ron says good barbecue is all in the sauce, and in these parts, the local preference is for a caramelized sauce, producing the sticky, sweet taste that folks in Western Pennsylvania love. Most ribbers, himself included, serve St. Louis ribs because they are meatier than baby backs, with a little more fat for a lot more flavor.

He's not sure yet how much product he'll be bringing to the Westmoreland venue, but for another regional show he does at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh during the Labor Day weekend, he'll truck in 150 cases of ribs, with 12 slabs per case. He also will be cooking pulled-pork, chicken, riblet patties and brisket, which he says is “true Texas barbecue.”

Ron figures he has won 300 to 400 awards and has “a semi-trailer full” of trophies for his efforts. He proudly displays his titles and awards on a huge sign board posted to the front of his booth.

The Conaways and their Texas Pit Barbecue will be one of six national rib vendors competing for best ribs, best sauce and people's choice honors in the Rib Fest at Westmoreland Fairgrounds. Also in contention are Armadillo's, Smokin' Joe's Hog Wild Barbeque, Sticky Ribs BBQ, Archie's Barbeque and Desperado's BBQ & Rib Co.

Desperado's owner Donna Rice of Hinkley, Ohio, and her husband, Lee, will visit some 25 rib festivals across the country from now until Labor Day, when they'll participate in the annual Nugget Casino RibFest in Reno, Nev. She says their variety of sauces — Sweet and Smokey, Hotter than “H” and Original BBQ — is what makes Desperado's ribs the best.

“With three different sauces, you can appeal to people all over the country,” she says. “You can mix and match the sauces to your taste. The possibilities are endless.”

Desperado's has won more than 300 first-place awards for their ribs. The couple has been traveling the rib festival circuit since 1988 and each year is special to Donna.

“I always say it's like a family reunion, when you get to see people you haven't seen for a year,” she says. “It's a neat thing.”

To complement the barbecue, the Rib Fest also will feature specialty food vendors offering festival favorites such as pierogies, fried veggies, nachos and cheese, French fries, deep-fried Oreos, soft-serve ice cream and more.

Beverages will be handled by the Mt. Pleasant Firemen's Club, sponsor of the Beer Garden, offering four brands of beer. For those who'd rather pair their ribs with wine, more than 40 varieties from six wineries will be available in the wine pavilion.

Continuous entertainment will feature headline performer Fran Cosmo, former lead singer of Boston, and his band at 8 p.m. June 27. Also performing will be Switch, NoMAD, Gashouse Annie & Abilene, Saddle Up and Hillbilly Way on June 28, and Second Wind, Hamilton Avenue, Jill West and Blues Attack and Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers on June 29.

Rib Fest also will include an arts-and-crafts marketplace and Kid's Zone children's activities, including a rock-climbing wall, bungee jump and animal scooters.

Plans are already under way to make this an annual event at the fairgrounds, says promoter Kelly Simon, who organized this event after doing a rib festival in Ohio last year.

Candy Williams is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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