CHICAGO — The men head straight for the Wicker Park backyard carrying beer and prized cuts of raw meat.

CHICAGO — The men head straight for the Wicker Park backyard carrying beer and prized cuts of raw meat.

There, in the charcoal haze of three grills, they find dozens of other men just like them — wearing hooded sweatshirts, often speaking with their mouths full and not worrying about what their girlfriends or wives might say.

No offense to the ladies whose presence at these gatherings is prohibited — they love you, they really do — but this is the "Manbque," the one evening each month reserved just for males.

It remains a sensitive issue, but here in Chicago, the men of Manbque say there's nothing sexist about their group. For the past six years, it has given them the chance to celebrate manhood, network and share a passion for meat-eating. In some ways, the gatherings are inspired by the way women connect, its leaders say.

"Girls do 'girls' night out,' " said Jesse Valenciana, 34, Manbque's creator. "Essentially, it's that for guys, like a manly potluck."

Over meat lollipops, peanut-butter burgers and bacon-flavored vodka in shot glasses made of steak, friends — who bring friends, who bring other friends — have transformed the meetings from an intimate gathering of buddies to a concept being duplicated in 10 other states and in Canada. The group is so popular, it hosts regular events at restaurants, sells T-shirts and caters weddings.

And at a time when participation in male-oriented service clubs is on the decline, some members see Manbque's popularity as proof that modern guys do, in fact, want to stay connected with each other and with their communities.

"It's kind of like the guys with the hats, what do you call those? The Moose?" asked Eric Barker, 30. "It's easier to be yourself at these events than any other."

To begin to understand Manbque, you must play by the rules — their rules. There are 19 of them listed on These include:

RULE: Manbque should only be held during the week. Weekends are for Coed B Ques where there is a slight chance of actually going home with a woman.

Last month, Manbque's "meat-ing" fell on a Thursday night, which allowed Al Mohamed just enough time to go home and change after a day at work as a financial analyst.

Originally from suburban Orlando, Fla., Mohamed and another friend from Florida heard about the event after relocating to Chicago a year ago. They thought it might be a good way to meet new people.

"We came in, and it was just like a welcoming group of friends," Mohamed said. "We have no friends or family here, but Manbque really helped with that, and now I'm proud to call Chicago home."

He can thank Valenciana and friends. As he and his buddies were getting older, marrying, having kids and moving to the suburbs, Valenciana wanted an excuse for them to stay in touch. So the Wicker Park resident, who works as a community manager at a design studio, sent out an email proposing a monthly cookout with good beer, loud music and all the meat they could eat.

Within months, the group grew from a handful of friends to consistently 30 or 40 guests.

The men now find out about the gatherings after officially becoming a member on Facebook. Each month, they receive an email with the address. Then it's every man for himself. Each participant is responsible for his own dish to share. The host provides a grill, and one or two members inevitably bring their own.

The members sip beer, socialize and give each other nicknames like "The Godfather," "Beeferazi" and "Cable Guy."

Anything to keep busy until it's your turn at the grill.

RULE: Any vegetables served at Manbque must be within the tight parameters of meat in the form of a kabob.

Meat is definitely the headliner. Men prepare seared steak with coffee-chili barbecue sauce, Tennessee whiskey chops and burger muffins. They grill ostrich and bison and alligator.

Bacon wins the most popular ingredient award: there's bacon bread pudding, bacon-bourbon ice cream and bacon-cheeseburger pizzas. This month, two budding chefs worked feverishly over the grill to prepare Meat Maki — meat-filled sushi with bacon, not seaweed, binding it all together.

"This has been a great way to preview what we want to do," said Ian Jablow, 22, who is opening a restaurant.

Similarly, existing restaurant owners who have heard about Manbque have armed members with recipes and ingredients for special menu items they would like to showcase.

Bryan Sierminski, 25, chef at Clutch Bar on Chicago's Near West Side, had a friend bring measured proportions of arugula, Sriracha hot sauce, cream cheese and a slow-cooked onion and tomato mixture for the restaurant's signature Clutcheasy Redux burger.

The burgers were devoured in less than an hour.

"That demographic is definitely who we want to come to Clutch, those experimental minds, those foodie-interested people," said Sierminski.

The group's leaders select a winning recipe at each gathering, and that recipe is posted on the website. Valenciana has received emails from Japan and Australia. He's helped start other Manbque chapters in Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Tennessee, Ohio and California — with four more set to begin meeting this summer in Wisconsin, Iowa, New Jersey and Philadelphia, he said.

Terri Russ is a communications professor and friendship expert from St. Mary's College — a women's college — in Notre Dame, Ind. Part of the men's success, she said, may be explained by the way they tend to bond, over shared activity. Women tend to bond by talking, she said.

Russ added, however, that the men should be careful not to allow themselves to fall into stereotypes of one-dimensional cavemen.

"If your whole goal is to find a woman, this isn't the way to do it," Russ said. "Can you just imagine the pickup lines? 'I went to the Manbque last night.'"

Valenciana, who has a girlfriend, insists that the group is all in good fun. He notes that women are welcome at their sponsored events at bars and restaurants.

And if a woman crashed a meeting, wearing a fake mustache (as this reporter did), the men would probably shrug their shoulders and pass her a pork chop, he said.

With the rising popularity of the Manbque, Valenciana and other founding members are looking for growth opportunities. Barker, who owns a Web design company, is redesigning the website to stream recipes from all its chapters.

Eventually, they envision hundreds of chapters.

Maybe it will become the go-to place for catering tailgates and office events. Maybe the brand will be so successful, they will develop its own line of grilling tools and barbecue sauces and rubs. Maybe they'll compile a best-selling cookbook, or ...

RULE: Always exaggerate at Manbque.