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September 18, 2018

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Las Vegas’ International Pizza Expo continues to grow bigger each year

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Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau

A pizza is tended to during the annual International Pizza Expo Tuesday, March 20, 2018, at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

International Pizza Expo 2018

Scott Leach bites into a slice of pizza during the annual International Pizza Expo Tuesday, March 20, 2018, at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Launch slideshow »

The International Pizza Expo rolled through town once again March 19-22, this year taking over the Las Vegas Convention Center’s massive South Hall in what seemed like the biggest pizza show of all time. More than 12,000 attendees from across the country and around the world were expected for the 34th annual convention, featuring hundreds of exhibitors and suppliers of ingredients, kitchen equipment, marketing, promotional and packaging materials and everything else you can imagine having anything to do with the ever-growing pizza industry.

The expo is not open to the public but if it were, it would sell out. There were approximately 1,500 booths large and small lining the South Hall, many of them cooking and offering samples of their doughs, sauces, cheeses, toppings and more. Genuine Broaster Chicken, a supplier based in Beloit, Wisconsin, maintained one of the more popular booths, offering an endless supply of crispy poultry snacks to boost its reputation as the perfect pizza partner.

Carrot Top, resident headliner at the Luxor, presided over a chicken wing eating contest at the La Nova Wings booth on Tuesday … not that the centrally located kiosk needed the comedian to spice up its party. For three days, dance music blared from the booth as a chicken mascot danced and girls in short-shorts served up boneless chicken bites in various flavors. The Pizza Expo is very Vegas.

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Metro Pizza's Chris Decker presents his Sicilian-style pizza to the judges of the International Pizza Challenge at the 34th annual International Pizza Expo on March 21 at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

When he wasn’t leading demonstrations in one of four expo arenas with bleacher-style seating, pizza champion and restaurateur Tony Gemignani—who operates two Pizza Rock locations in the Vegas Valley as well as Little Tony’s at Palace Station—posed for photos and signed copies of his book “The Pizza Bible” for his fellow pizza proprietors. Las Vegas’ own John Arena, who founded Metro Pizza with his cousin Sam Facchini in 1980, bounced between booths to host various demos, too, teaming up with baking educator and author Peter Reinhart for one info session titled “Why Are You Still Buying Bread?”

One new-to-Vegas chef was on hand to promote a new product scheduled to arrive in stores next month. Los Angeles food truck legend Roy Choi, who’s developing a Korean restaurant for Park MGM this year, has teamed with Ken’s Foods—makers of popular salad dressings, barbecue sauces and more—to release a line of Kogi sauces derived from his Kogi BBQ food truck.

Choi operates several L.A. restaurants now but his original mobile dining concept serves a Mexican-Korean hybrid cuisine known for big, bold flavors. He said he wasn’t concerned about maintaining that reputation with his new sauce collaboration. “The reason I’m not apprehensive is what’s in the bottle. These flavors are true to Kogi,” Choi said.

There were plenty of smaller suppliers at the expo, including first timers Charlito’s Cocina, a boutique charcuterie producer from Long Island, New York that has recently expanded its production capacity. “We usually do the specialty food shows so this is pretty big for us,” said meatmaker Ben Parker, offering samples of salami picante and dry-cured black truffle sausage.

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Ben Parker from Charlito's Cocina in New York shares some product at the International Pizza Expo at the Las Vegas Convention Center on March 21.

The pizza industry is thriving and diversifying, so there wasn’t one clearly dominant trend discussed at this year’s expo, however gluten-free food products are a hot topic throughout the food and beverage industry and especially in the pizza universe.

The manufacturing side of the industry has made vast improvement in regards to gluten-free product certification but the service and restaurant industry is in need of additional education, according to Lindsey Yeakle, quality control manager and food safety specialist with the Gluten Intolerance Group. The nonprofit organization was formed more than 40 years ago and is responsible for that little “GF” circle logo seen on many gluten-free food products—that’s the symbol of the group’s certification.

“Manufacturers have a better understanding of how technical things have to be in their world so they’re moving in a better direction,” Yeakle said. “But the food service industry still says and does things based on not enough knowledge, making claims without understanding completely how to keep things safe.”

GIG started its certification program about nine years ago, when there was an obvious surge in restaurants and pizzerias putting gluten-free dishes on menus. “I think everybody is a pizza fan,” Yeakle said. “Finding that perfect gluten-free pizza crust is hard because when you take the gluten away, that’s what pizza is. It’s tricky.”

Just a few paces away at the Antico Molina Caputo Flour booth, local pizza maker Vincent Rotolo of downtown’s Good Pie was cooking up a gluten-free Detroit-style pizza with a thick yet light and spongy crust and crispy cheese baked into the edge. Quite ironically, it was delicious.