Sweet and Sour

The maestro returns, with the sauce that sticks to your ribs.

Tops Great American Rib Cook-Off Tower City Amphitheater, 351 Canal Road Thursday, May 26, through Monday, May 30; Hours are from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday and Friday, noon to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and noon to 8 p.m. Monday. $5, free for kids under 12; call 440-247-4386
Butch Lupinetti checks his meat at the Rib Cook-Off.
Butch Lupinetti checks his meat at the Rib Cook-Off.
From the hills of Tennessee to the plains of Iowa, Butch Lupinetti has rubbed elbows with enough barbecue buffs to uncover this regional revelation: Clevelanders want the meat on their ribs to fall off the bone. "You like a meaty rib that's a little more tender than most," says Lupinetti, who'll defend his two-year Best Ribs and Best Sauce reign against 10 other grillers this weekend at the Tops Great American Rib Cook-Off. "Down south, they want a rib that's a bit more dry. When you bite into it, you gotta crunch into it."

Lupinetti's been keeping notes since 1968, when he bought a New Jersey honky-tonk and started grilling ribs in its kitchen. By the early '90s, he'd perfected his technique and begun to brave the ultra-competitive ribfest circuit. Since then, the 64-year-old retired ironworker has brought home a warehouse of trophies, including the Best Ribs prize three of the last four years in Cleveland.

His tips on good grilling: To make a perfect rib, massage a seasoned rub onto two pounds of raw meat. The next day, lay it on the grill over hickory chips, and let it slow-cook at 225 degrees for at least four hours. As it browns, slather on an apple-juice-and-Coca-Cola glaze right before the sauce. Naturally, he recommends his Super Pyrogenic concoction. ("That sucker's so hot, it'll start your motorcycle," he claims.)

The secret is in the sauce. At Lupinetti's first Cleveland cook-off in 1993, nearly everybody said his vinegar-based Butch's Smack-Your-Lips BBQ sauce literally put a sour taste in their mouths. "I watched people just up and pour it on the ground," Lupinetti recalls. "I thought, What's the matter? People said, 'It's not sweet enough.'"

Back home, Lupinetti tweaked the recipe. He entered it the next year and snagged first place. (He's since won three more times.) "I sent a friend in Cleveland a bottle," he says. "He said, 'You could make it even sweeter. We want to be able to drink that sauce.'"

If you've saved room for more sweetness, look no further than Dave Steele for dessert. For weeks, his Canton-based Woo City Ice Cream Company has been bombarded with hundreds of entries in a competition for a new flavor. Known for his offbeat, organically made flavors -- like balsamic-vinaigrette ice cream and cucumber sorbet -- Steele will let patrons vote for their favorite among three finalists during the five-day rib fest (which also includes plenty of live music and stuff to keep the kids busy). "Let's say somebody wants to mix malted vanilla with maple and melon Midori and throw in some chocolate chips," offers Steele. "It's something like that. We're going for how unique it is."

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