You’ll find a lot of ‘Little Italy’ in Chicago

This weekend’s newspaper column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The TImes (Ottawa, Ill.)

By Dave Wischnowsky


June 30, 2012

Across the country, you can find “Little Italys” everywhere. On the East Coast, New York has a legendary one. Out west, San Diego has another. Baltimore also has its own neighborhood by that name, and Omaha does, too.

In fact, even tiny Clinton, Ind. – pop. 4,893 – has an annual event called “Little Italy Festival Town” that it’s held over Labor Day weekend every year since 1966.

But, perhaps, no place in America has quite as many “Little Italys” as Chicago does.

In the Windy City, there’s a multi-block stretch on North Harlem Road near Addison Street that’s filled with Italian businesses as well as a strip along of West Grand Avenue near Ogden Avenue. There’s also the “Heart of Italy” neighborhood at Oakley Avenue and 24th Street, which is home to mostly Northern Italian immigrants and their shops.

But for those seeking Chicago’s true “Little Italy” that celebrates Italians’ homeland in the biggest way, Taylor Street is the place to go. And last week, that’s just where I went.

The history

These days, Chicago boasts tens of thousands of residents of Italian descent – as of 2007, it was 96,599 — which makes them the city’s fourth largest ethnic group behind the Irish, German and Polish.

But in the 1850s, when Italians first began arriving in Chicago, they started out as just a trickle. By 1880, only 1,357 Italians called Chicago home. However, by 1927 – after Italian cuisine had become one of the most popular in America – Italians owned 500 grocery stores, 257 restaurants and 240 pastry shops throughout town.

At least 20 significant Italian enclaves popped up in Chicago during the early 20th century, but the largest area of settlement was along Taylor Street on the Near Southwest Side.

The cuisine

Just a few years ago, the area surrounding Taylor Street wasn’t exactly considered the safest neighborhood in the city. But with the University of Illinois-Chicago and the medical district continuing to expand, the region has enjoyed a revival and now offers a comfy feel.

Last week, my girlfriend and I swung by in the early evening for a pre-dinner drink at Davanti Enoteca (1359 W. Taylor) – try the house-infused vodka of the day and cannellini bean spread appetizer – before we swung across the street to the kitschy Beviamo Wine Bar (1358 W. Taylor), where the wine on tap is inexpensive but tasty.

After a bit, we strolled down a block for dinner at Urban Union (1421 W. Taylor), located next door to the National Italian American Museum Sports Hall of Fame. The museum, which features a Tommy Lasorda Gallery and a Frank Sinatra Performing Arts Center, also sits across the street from the Piazza Dimaggio, a park boasting a sculpture of the New York Yankees legend that was erected in 1998.

At Urban Union, the menu features small plates for sharing that are reasonably priced and extremely delicious. Three tips: Try the tagliatelle, the wood-oven baked oysters and the goat cheese-stuffed squash blossoms. You’ll leave satiated and ready to explore Taylor Street’s other unique nooks and nightspots.

The travel tips

Chicago’s “Little Italy” neighborhood is bordered by Ashland Avenue on the west and Morgan Street on the east and by Harrison Street on the north and Roosevelt Road to the south. And reaching its heart – aka Taylor Street – requires just an easy drive.

From Kankakee, simply take I-57 north to the Dan Ryan (I-90/94 W) and take Exit 52B toward Roosevelt Road/Taylor Street. Head west on Roosevelt to South Loomis Street, where you’ll take a right turn and soon find yourself at Taylor Street and in “Little Italy.”

The only things missing are gondola rides.