Kennedy, 53, hopes to take on Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in what's expected to be a contentious -- and expensive -- race. Rauner's first term has been dominated by a growing budget crisis and conflict with a Democratic-controlled Legislature.
"I'm running for governor because this state is headed in the wrong direction," Kennedy said in a YouTube video announcing his candidacy for the 2018 election.
Rauner and the Legislature have been unable to agree on a budget since he took office, leaving the state without a full-year budget since July 2015.
Rauner and the state Republican Party have blamed Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan for the budget impasse. The party slammed Kennedy as a Madigan "lap dog" and accused him of secretly meeting with Madigan for his blessing to run.
"Illinois needs an independent reformer, but Chris Kennedy is just another Mike Madigan-first politician," the party said in a post
on its anti-Madigan website, Boss Madigan.
For Kennedy's announcement the state GOP launched a new site, MadiganKennedy.com, that redirects to the other website.
Kennedy said he plans to draw upon his experience in the public and private sector as well as his family's history of civic engagement from both sides of the aisle. His father's side is Democrat while his mother's family, the Skakels, skews Republican.
"From my earliest days, my family instilled in me the importance of the two great traditions of our country: a dedication to the free market and a commitment to the common good."
Kennedy was born in Boston and moved to Illinois 30 years ago. He co-founded and runs Top Box Foods, the hunger-relief nonprofit with wife Sheila, and served as chairman of the board of the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
For years, he managed Chicago's iconic Merchandise Mart, through which he worked with governmental agencies, labor groups and small businesses, according to his campaign website. He recently served as chairman of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees and is now involved in a real estate development in Chicago known as Wolf Point.
He is chairman of Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises Inc., the Kennedy family's investment firm.
State Democrats have been looking for a high-profile and deep-pocketed candidate to take on Rauner. Kennedy's bid could pit two wealthy businessmen against each other in what is expected to be an expensive race.
Kennedy's video intersperses images of Rauner with news clips and headlines about the state's budget crisis and layoffs.
"I've seen from so many different vantage points the potential of the state. Then I see the failings of the government," he says in the video.
"There's growing despair, there's bewilderment. The state needs to change."