What has become nearly as synonymous with Long Beach Island as the historic lighthouse on its opposite end is Chowderfest, a weekend-long Beach Haven extravaganza centered around the sampling of some of the best clam and seafood chowders anywhere on the planet.

Presented by the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce for the 31st year, Chowderfest kicks off 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5, with its massive annual Merchants Mart. It then segues into its main event 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6, with the Chowderfest Cook-Off Classic, where this year 15 restaurants will be vying for bragging rights in three classes: Manhattan (red clam chowder); New England (white clam chowder); and the creative seafood chowder division that was added to the mix in 2016.

Saturday’s Merchants Mart is free to attend and features dozens of vendors — many representing seasonal seashore businesses offering exceptional deals to make way for next year’s inventory — as well as free family-oriented entertainment, and a variety of food and drinks for purchase. An adult-beverage tent, open both days, will provide the draft beers Spaten Oktoberfest, Goose Island IPA, Landshark Lager and Blue Point Toasted Lager, hard ciders from Strongbow, Stella and McKenzie’s, and a variety of wines and wine coolers by Barefoot Cellars.

“It’s become a signature event and the island’s biggest party of the year,” says Lori Pepenella, CEO of the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce. “There’s just a tremendous amount of things for families to do, and it’s an exciting way to help keep people in a summertime mode for a little longer.

“Thousands of gallons (of chowder) are produced and consumed at this event each year, turning everybody who visits into a chowder connoisseur,” she adds. “And every ticket holder on Sunday gets to vote for their favorite chowder in each division. It’s one of the largest and most popular events of its kind anywhere in the world.”

An estimated 15,000 people show up each fall for Chowderfest, which is traditionally the first weekend in October.

“Taste and ingredients are what ultimately garner the votes, but the participants really get creative in how they decorate their booths and enthusiastically dress their team for the competition,” Pepenella says. “That can make an impression on people and become a factor in voting too. It’s the full package.

“They all have fun with it, but these restaurants take it very seriously too. You get a silver trophy plate for winning a category, but more important are the bragging rights, which are very prestigious in the Chowderfest Classic.”

Red dynasty on the rise

For several years, and since first entering the Chowderfest Cook-Off Classic in 1995, Stefano’s Restaurant has been a dominant force, particularly in the Manhattan category. The Long Beach Township perennial champ also has three crowns to its credit in Rhode Island’s annual International Chowder Cook-Off.

Two years ago, Stefano’s stranglehold on the LBI red-chowder world was loosened by Lefty’s Tavern of Barnegat, which took the Grand Champion Red title in 2017 and defended it last October. On Sunday, Lefty’s will be gunning for a triple crown of Grand Champion Red titles behind the chowder-cooking wizardry of Chef Oscar Morera.

“I think our secret ingredient is love,” says Lefteddy “Lefty” Saropoulos, who opened Lefty’s 10 years ago with his wife Jennifer. “Oscar loves what he does, and he puts extra special care into every step of the process, right down to not allowing anyone else to touch it until it’s ready. Nobody can cut a potato like him, nobody can slice up an onion like him — he knows how he wants it done, and he does it right.

“We were very excited to be bestowed the honor, especially from a place that earned it and held onto it for so long,” he adds. “We hope to hold onto it just as long.”

Of the 15 establishments competing in LBI this year, Lefty’s is one of six that are not located on the island itself. Another is Bread & Brine, which is coming down from a town just above Yonkers, New York, to take on the New England clam chowder field in LBI. The lone original participant from 1989 is Beach Haven’s Country Kettle Chowda, which will compete in the creative chowder class.

“Last year they had someone participating from Ireland, so it really does draw participants from far and wide,” Saropoulos says.

Attendees from far and wide too

Long Beach Island routinely sees summertime vacationers from across the pond in Europe and even as far away as Australia. Some have made it a point to structure their vacation time around Chowderfest, says Pepenella.

“So it really has become a fun and popular event with an international presence,” she says. “And most of this came about through word-of-mouth. Remember, there were no cell phones or Internet or social media when this was created 31 years ago. But it’s an event that has continued to grow through the decades, with families bringing back their kids and grand kids. It’s something that — whether you’re a local, or vacation on Long Beach Island, or you just happen to love chowder — attracts a great group of people who are just happy to be part of the event.”

Six bands performing over two days

With the fabled Woodstock festival having just celebrated its 50th anniversary this August, it is fitting that Chowderfest has a slew of live music covering a diversity of genres slated to perform all day Saturday and Sunday.

Saturday’s band lineup includes Garage Kept, 40 North and the Jimmy Brogan Band. On Sunday it will be Ted Hammock and Jason Booth, The Pickles and The Impulsives.

“We used to have one band play all day Saturday, and another all day Sunday, and a couple of years ago we changed it to include several acts scattered throughout each day,” Pepenella says. “It’s everything from vintage rock to country, to more current popular songs.”

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