17th Street Barbecue and Memphis Championship BBQ Bring Award-Winning Barbecue to All
In the world of barbecue, Mike Mills is a living legend. Inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame in 2010, his 17th Street Barbecue joints in Southern Illinois are a keystone pilgrimage for the barbecue faithful and Memphis Championship BBQ, his outposts in Las Vegas, have established themselves as top destinations in a city of destination restaurants. As a competition barbecue cooker he led the most triumphant team in history and is a founding pitmaster of the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, an annual New York City tradition that draws over 120,000 people to sample the country’s best barbecue over one weekend in June. Restaurants & Institutions magazine calls him “America’s most revered pit master.”
As barbecue guru, Mills consulted with Danny Meyer to create Blue Smoke, one of New York City’s pioneering barbecue restaurants and his book, Peace, Love, and Barbecue was nominated for the prestigious James Beard Award.
That book title should tell you something: for Mills, barbecue is about more than just great meat, smoked right. It’s about friendship and craft and tradition. His award winning Original Barbecue Sauce was passed down from Mama Landess, his grandmother, and he learned to barbecue from his daddy, who used to smoke meat for PTA meetings and city holidays, then mop on the family’s special sauce.
This is what Mills started with: Mama Landess’s sauce and his daddy’s expertise at the pit. He barbecued all his life for family events and for friends’ celebrations. He smoked in the parking lot at his first bar and later at 17th Street as an impetus to sell libations. Taking it a step further, he formed the Apple City Barbecue team, pioneered the use of apple wood in barbecue, developed his Magic Dust® dry rub, a mouthwatering blend of spices, and started storming the competition cooking circuit. The team took 64 first place wins in 69 competitions and won championships and grand championships at contests across the country, including a Grand Championship at the Jack Daniel’s World Invitational Barbecue Cooking Contest (where his sauce also won the Jack Daniel’s Sauce Contest that year) and four World Champion and three Grand World Champion wins at Memphis in May, known to many as the Super Bowl of Swine.
Since that first store, Mills has opened more restaurants in Illinois, stretching south to Marion and Sparta. His ribs, smoked for up to six hours over apple and cherry woods, were called Best in America by Bon Appetit magazine and he’s been featured on Good Morning America, ABC The Chew and Fox and Friends as well as has made appearances on the Food Network and Martha Stewart Radio and been hailed by the New York Times. Whether it’s Barbecue Chicken cooked slow for four hours or succulent Barbecue Pork Shoulder or Beef Brisket with 16 to 20 hours of smoke on them, Mills’s Magic Dust, his secret special spice rub, keeps people coming back. Topped with his award-winning sauce, it’s hard to get enough. And many can’t, which is why all the 17th Street Barbecue locations offer catering and have space available for private parties – a special occasion demands special barbecue.
Preaching the gospel of barbecue, Mills took his signature style and Magic Dust to Las Vegas and quickly established Memphis Championship BBQ as a go-to spot. His blend of gracious hospitality and great food garnered him spots on Bon Appetit’s Best of Las Vegas list in 2007, Bobby Flay featured it on BBQ with Bobby Flay and the Las Vegas gaming magazine called a visit to Memphis Championship BBQ “one of the top 10 things to do in The City of Lights.”
In 1988, Mills created Praise The Lard – the Murphysboro Barbecue Cook-Off, one of the cornerstone events in competition cooking. The event celebrated its 26th Anniversary in 2013. Praise the Lard is an old-fashioned tent revival celebrating the almighty pig with $25,000 in prize money and a weekend full of fun. This is the only one-day, dual-sanctioned contest on the circuit. Simultaneously judged by MBN and KCBS, the two official bodies of barbecue – it draws top barbecue talent from near and far.
Mills’s barbecue chops are honed butcher-knife sharp and he continues to soothe souls with his sweet and smoky swine. Mills is invested in barbecue whole hog, creating great food and community everywhere he goes. In the man’s own words, “Life’s too short for a half-rack.”
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