Way back in the spring of 2013, a local chef friend invited me for lunch at a favorite Downtown spot, explaining that we’d be meeting up with a few others to kick around some ideas. The others turned out to be celebrity chefs Bruce Bromberg, Scott Conant and Jet Tila, and the group brunched with chef Natalie Young at Eat and kicked around some ideas before doing the same with chef Sheridan Su at his Fat Choy diner at Eureka Casino.
I had accidentally crashed a planning meeting for the culinary programming for the very first Life Is Beautiful festival, and it was delicious. Jolene Mannina was there, too, the founder of Secretburger and Vegas Test Kitchen, because she was hired to curate the food layout that first year.
“I think I was the second person hired,” she says. “I’d never done a large-scale event before, but I had a good knowledge of chefs and what they needed.
“But when I first got hired, it was only supposed to be a few blocks Downtown, not 15. It kept evolving through the year, which was scary. We were learning a lot.”
Food has always played a major role at the festival, and 2013’s inaugural edition featured around 50 chefs spread throughout a culinary village, some serving their food, some doing cooking demonstrations. The celebrity chef element was very prominent, too, with national stars like Jonathan Waxman, Nobu Matsuhisa and Tom Colicchio making appearances.
“If you look at the timeline of Coachella and all these other festivals, we were the first to have nationally known chefs, to bring in these amazing chefs at a music festival,” Mannina says. “Then it kicked off [as a trend].”
LIB’s music and art have evolved through the years, and you can say the same about the food. That first year might have been the biggest in terms of star power and the volume of offerings, but every festival has had its own memorable culinary events and flavors. Mannina isn’t in charge anymore, but her Omakase Cantina experience returns to the fest this year, a 20-seat, VIP dining experience (sped up to 45 minutes, so guests can get back to the party) featuring all-star local chefs Mike Rubenstein of Vetri Cucina, Oscar Amador of Anima by Edo and Josh Smith of Delilah.
Of course, the most visible grub at LIB will be the 50-plus vendors in the general festival area, and local favorites new and established have always been featured in this playful portfolio. Metro Pizza, Sparrow + Wolf, La Strega, Harlo, Main St. Provisions, Casa Playa, Tacotarian, Esther’s Kitchen, Cousins Maine Lobster and Oming’s Kitchen are a few of the Vegas restaurants and food trucks dishing it up this time.
“Not only has Life Is Beautiful shifted from big-name celebrities to our own real artisans and local talent, but that’s the trend on the Strip as well,” says Vincent Rotolo, owner of the Arts District’s Good Pie and curator, once again, of the LIB Pizzeria. “A lot of the Strip’s big names have been coming off the Strip, like Todd English and Wolfgang Puck.”
In a way, he says, the evolution of the festival mirrors dining in Las Vegas, as local chefs grab the spotlight and develop more and more standout neighborhood restaurants. Rotolo has long been a Downtown guy and a festival attendee before participating; he joined Justin Kingsley Hall’s live fire cookout in 2018, working with a woodfired oven built into a ’57 Chevy truck.
“I get excited about it every year, and now, doing the Pizzeria is the ultimate honor, because I have the opportunity to invite who I think are the best pizzerias in Las Vegas, to hand-pick the pizzerias I’m a fan of,” he says. “And before becoming a pizza maker, I’ve been a consumer and fan my whole life. So I get to be a fan of what I do and my peers who I respect so much.”
It seems everyone is a fan at Life Is Beautiful, whether you’re in the pit at the main stage, performing on the stage itself, slinging drinks from behind the bar or working in a makeshift kitchen.
“I think it just brings something really special to the city,” Mannina says. “People don’t even look at the lineup anymore to buy a ticket, they look at the festival as a whole and everything going on up and down our city’s streets. It’s just a good time.”