"Chicago" by Carl Sandburg

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

-excerpt from the poem "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg (1916)

Chicago Skyline

Chicago Skyline
The Chicago Skyline from a Near West Side highrise

Monday, August 20, 2012

Little Italy

The Breakdown
Benvenuti to Chicago's Little Italy!
An overview: Little Italy has transformed itself from one of Chicago’s true ethnic areas into one of the city’s most sought-after neighborhoods for trendy dining and student living.  In recent years, Little Italy has been lumped by many into the bigger University Village neighborhood that extends to east to include the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and south down to the Pilsen border around 16th Street.  We debated whether to make this a University Village entry and include parts of Little Italy, but decided to just focus on Little Italy, especially an exciting stretch of Taylor Street that runs from Ashland to Halsted.  So we’ll save University Village as a whole for another entry.

Little Italy has sported some of Chicago’s best-know Italian eateries for over a century.  It’s home to the original Rosebud, Francesca’s, and Al’s Beef.  However, it’s also home to some of the city’s trendiest new restaurants such as Davanti Enoteca and Three Aces.  Although the neighborhood doesn’t boast Italian flags and bakeries at every turn the way Greektown does for the white cross, blue stripes, and baklava, it’s still one of the country’s most well-known and authentic slices of Italia done American-style.

The past dozen or so years have seen a tremendous surge of interest in Little Italy.  New multi-story mixed-use developments have taken over antiquated buildings along Taylor Street.  The formerly quiet streets, save in patches, now bustle with activity in the evening.  Also, with some vacant properties sitting in the area, the neighborhood still has room to grow.  So whether you want to take in classic Italian food, something a little more progressive, or just a night of relaxing and cocktails, Chicago’s Little Italy should NOT be overlooked.

 The boundaries: The boundaries of Little Italy are up for some debate, especially as its often combined with the newer “University Village” incorporating and surrounding UIC.  For the sake of historical boundaries combined with present-day borders (the university, the medical center, etc.), our entry covers the area from Harrison Street to the north, Roosevelt Road to the south, Ashland Avenue to the west, and Morgan Street to the east.


Ahhh bocce courts.  Now you KNOW you're in Little Italy.
Population make-up: The population of Little Italy has shrunk ever so slightly from 2000 to 2010.  The 2010 Census population of the area was 8,857, which is down 1.6% from 2000 when it was 9,000.  Shockingly little mention is made of the surprising amount of diversity in the neighborhood, with no true ethnic majority.  As of 2010, the racial breakdown of Little Italy was 46% white, 19% black, 9% Hispanic, and 24% Asian.


A brief history: Although pockets of Chicago hosted scores of Italian immigrants throughout the 19th and 20th centuries (notably “Heart of Chicago” on the west end of Pilsen), none are more recognized as Chicago’s Little Italy than along Taylor Street in the Near West Side.  In the late 1800s, Italians coming through Ellis Island to settle in Chicago often started (and remained) near Halsted and Taylor Street.  A poverty-stricken area, what became Chicago’s Little Italy also became home to Jane Addams’s Hull House, one of the first of its kind in the nation, a haven of social and educational opportunity for poor immigrants (especially women) who otherwise wouldn’t have such opportunities.

Little Italy was a tourist destination in Chicago, especially with the rise in popularity of Italian cuisine.  Part of the neighborhood was demolished (like Greektown) due to the construction of the expressways, notably the Eisenhower (I-290) in the 1950s.  The Italian population began to decline thereafter.  Although never falling into disrepair, the population of the neighborhood continued to dwindle for the next several decades. 

1407 W. Taylor Street.  The home of kings!
However, since 2000, there has been an incredible resurgence in interest and development within the neighborhood.  With its proximity to UIC, as more students have been choosing to live near campus (as opposed to commuting, helping overcome its reputation as a “commuter school”), Little Italy has been one of their most sought-after neighborhoods.  Rents have increased and new shops and restaurants have sprouted up.  With entrepreneurs such as Francesca’s and Davanti Enoteca owner Scott Harris trying to bring back a truly Italian flavor to the area, Little Italy may have never seen better days, with the best still yet to come.


Getting there: Although there is no “L” line directly within the boundaries of Little Italy, it is served by two lines immediately to the outside.  You can take the Blue Line to Racine and it’s only a block or two south, or you can take the Pink Line to Polk and it’s only a couple blocks east.  Either way, as long as the weather is halfway decent, these are both great options to get into the neighborhood.

Going east-west, there are buses along Harrison (7), Roosevelt (12), and Taylor (157) which runs right through the heart of the neighborhood.  Going north-south you can grab buses along Ashland (9) and Racine (60).  Also the Halsted bus (8) will put you only a block or two away from Little Italy if you get off and walk west.


Three Aces (1321 W. Taylor Street)
That's a pretty good hand.
A newbie on a block with classic Italian eateries, Three Aces has quickly made its mark.  Combining trendy cuisine with a killer beer selection, the residents of Chicago have spoken and deemed that there’s room on Taylor Street for young and hip alongside classic and established.

Michael’s Take: Three Aces has a beautiful pizza list, but fried chicken livers topping a waffle with a cherry wine sauce spoke to my eccentric side.  Yes, the appropriately named “Offal n’ waffle” is definitely not for everybody, but if you do happen to enjoy liver even half as much as I do (which means A LOT), it’s a worthwhile dish.  The cherry wine sauce helps sweeten and moisten the crisp and chalky livers.  Meanwhile the ricotta-scallion waffles are a nice complement and finish the delicious play on chicken and waffles.  Also, again, that beer selection.  With over 50 on tap, in bottles, and in cans, true hipster heaven.

Awww that's just offal!
Laura’s Take: A great find. The outdoor patio dining area at Three Aces has a really inviting feel to it – kind of rustic. We sat down and had some drinks, which were unique and flavorful, while we waited for friends. It’s true, when ordering keep in mind that you will probably enjoy the Bolognese Fries. Perfect along with drinks, for sure. I am a HUGE fan of the type of pizza that they make here too, so I was overjoyed with it. Usually I stick to the classics with something like pizza, but for whatever reason, I got the pork belly one  and was happy. Glad our friends ordered the nice, spicy Calabrese pizza so I could steal some of that too. The really fun part was that the pizzas were each served on a huge rustic wooden slab that looks like it was just chainsawed off a fallen tree (in a good way). The atmosphere is a bit “trendy”, and you will not be hurting for unique new beers to try.

Anything Else We Missed: How about this for a compliment?  Eater Chicago named Three Aces #33 on its list of the “38 Essential Chicago Restaurants” back in April.  While holding up a styrofoam finger with “We’re Number 33!” on it doesn’t quite have the same effect, when you’re one of the 38 most essential restaurants in one of the VERY BEST food cities in the country, you’re doing something right.
Wood-fired pork belly pizza. Look at that crust.

Beviamo (1358 W. Taylor Street)
Beviamo, Italian for "Let's drink".  So, we will!
If you had to pick the most exciting corner in Little Italy, you could make a great argument for Taylor and Loomis.  Not only is arguably the neighborhood’s hottest restaurant (Davanti Enoteca) seated there, but right across the street is Beviamo, a relaxing, classy, cozy lounge.  This new spot is helping liven up Taylor Street and continuing Little Italy’s transformation into one of Chicago’s best neighborhoods for nightlife.

Michael’s Take: I like Beviamo and it’s a nice low-key change of pace if you’re looking for upscale nightlife without having to traverse to Rush Street.  I prefer places where you can have a conversation with the person across the table from you without having to shout and take a throat lozenge the next morning.  Although there’s music (piano and crooning in this case), it rides a safe balance between “here for a show” and background music.  The beer list is fairly limited, but the selection is diverse enough that any beer drinker should be able to find something desirable.  Anyway, you’re probably in better shape at a place like this for wine or cocktails.  So sit back, have a glass of vino, and get lost in the moody atmosphere.  This is another great find in a great neighborhood.

The maestro with his musical laboratory
one Friday night at Beviamo.
Laura’s Take: We were looking for a place to have some after-dinner drinks with a couple old friends. None of us knew about Beviamo, but we saw it across Taylor St. and popped in.  At first glance I was a little hesitant and intimidated at the intimate atmosphere – I mean, you had to walk by the performing pianist to enter the dimly lit doorway. He didn’t pretend he didn’t notice us – he actually greeted us on our way in. There was no going back at this point. Weird initially, but kinda cool in retrospect.  And this guy turned out to be AMAZING. I mean, he was taking requests from 80’s rock and doing really classy piano versions – AND singing, oh, and looping guitar parts too. On top of it I really liked the décor and small size of Beviamo. The huge, weeping vase piece on the piano was the most stunning of all and somebody has designed the bar area in a unique way, too. This is more of a wine place, but had a good sangria on special the night we were there. The atmosphere and live music was the perfect place to sit back and relax for a chill night out.

Anything Else We Missed: OK, so soft piano not your thing?  DJs spinning some electronica during the week better?  See, there’s something for everyone at Beviamo.


Vintage Lounge (1449 W. Taylor Street)
Whoa, even the SIGN is vintage!
Soooooo vintage.  Another new addition to Taylor Street’s nightlife doesn’t boast the largest beer selection or trendiest “small plates” menu.  What it does have is character.  Woody interior, archways, chandeliers, they’re all there.  Even if you’re not all dressed up for a night on the town, you can sit by the open street-level windows, have a nice cocktail, and enjoy a leisurely afternoon too.

Michael’s Take: Another addition to Little Italy’s ever-growing bar scene is this classy establishment.  Even while we were there on a quiet Saturday afternoon, Vintage Lounge has a pleasant ambiance to help differentiate it from your standard tavern.  Judging from pictures the place gets much more lively at night, but for a nice daytime drink with the summer breeze rolling in, Vintage Lounge is as good a place as any.

Laura’s Take: Vintage Lounge had the look of a relatively new, trendy establishment that’s popped up in Little Italy, and we stopped in. It’s memorable for its antiquey vintage feel, which they did a nice job with. The chandeliers did a lot to add to the ambiance. We sat next to the large windows open to the street and enjoyed a beverage. We will have to go back to determine whether Vintage lives up to its carefully constructed image.

Anything Else We Missed: We just stopped in for bevs, but there’s a succinct menu of burgers, salads, wings, and sandwiches.  Also, food AND drink specials seven days/nights a week.  That includes a wicked $5 martini special on Fridays with half-off appetizers from 4-9pm.  INTENSE.

Grab a seat and let's get...vintagey...


Al's Beef (1079 W. Taylor Street)
Does it get any more real?!
The Italian beef sandwich.  Along with deep dish pizza and a hot dog “run through the garden”, it makes up one-third of Chicago’s blue collar culinary triumvirate.  And it all started here, on Taylor Street, at Al’s.  Necessity is the mother of innovation and Al’s is no exception.  With food scarce during the Great Depression, the owners improvised, slicing the beef uber-thin and serving it as sandwiches.  Now, nearly 75 years later, both the restaurant and its legendary sandwich continue to thrive, both on Taylor Street and throughout the Chicago area.

Michael’s Take: I love my Italian Beef.  Ever since my dad and I used to patronize Contaldo’s (closed years ago) in Bloomingdale every Saturday, this sandwich has been a huge favorite of mine.  I’m still a huge Portillo’s loyalist, but if any Italian beef is going to be ranked “1b”, it’s probably Al’s.  They have locations now all over the city and burbs (including one within falling distance of our current apartment), but we had to visit the original.  It’s a great little dive with some outdoor seating, but you gotta eat it at the counter.  The fries are crisp and greasy, but the beef is just awesome.  Dipped so it’s juicy, you can almost DRINK the sandwich.  The meat literally falls apart in your mouth, and the Italian roll is soft but not too bready as to interfere with the beef.  And of course, giardiniera, MUST HAVE.  Spicy, crunchy, the stuff is edible gold.  A great beef with great giardineira, I seriously could eat like three of these in one sitting.

Got that?  Order a "combo" and you're getting beef AND
sausage on one bun.  NOT fries and a drink.
Laura’s Take: So, I think I had Italian beef once or twice before [out of somebody’s house with dry bread and probably a packet of flavoring]. Consequently I thought that this was enough information for me to conclude that Italian beef was a nice idea, but like so many other cult-ish phenomena, was a little overblown.  You know, I’d kind of roll my eyes and maybe dismiss it a little whenever I heard about this particular sandwich and all of its apparent glory. Well, things have changed. I freely admit that I was missing out, and I had judged too soon. I needed only to experience the one and the original, Al’s Italian Beef.  I don’t know what they put in that beef, but it is something you will not forget. It’s salty, drippy, chewy, meaty, spicy, and dare I say a little tangy. Please, do yourself a favor and get hot peppers. My God, I will be back.

Anything Else We Missed: Al’s Beef was recently one of 10 (well technically 12) finalists on the Travel Network show Adam Richman’s Best Sandwich in America.  Although it did not claim the ultimate prize, Adam Richman did do justice to this legendary sandwich.  Al’s continues to be featured on the Travel Network, Food Network, and Cooking Channel as one of the top spots in Chicago, and the entire country, to get a truly unique bite of Windy City flavor.
Not a single atom of this sandwich should be altered.

Little Italy: The Final Tally
A baseball-related park SO Italian,
it's named after Joe DiMaggio AND Mike Piazza
Little Italy is tremendously accessible.  It’s a 10-15 minute bus ride from the Loop, and is within a 5-minute walk of two “L” lines.  But accessibility isn’t the reason to go, rather just an advantage.  What Little Italy does have is a rich history mixed with a modern edge.  Its size and walkability accents its authentic and unique establishments, making it a manageable, exciting neighborhood to explore.  As more students (particularly at UIC but also other citywide schools of higher education) decide to live in the city rather than commuting from the suburbs, this will only help Little Italy become a more youthful, livelier location.

Although we didn’t get to make it to any authentic sit-down Italian restaurants in this trip, that just leaves the door open for another entry.  As the economy improves, and as population near the Loop grows, one can only imagine what Little Italy has in store for the next year, or five, or ten.  Either way, there’s no reason to wait.  Right now, the neighborhood boasts a wonderful mix of food, culture, and people.  Best of all Little Italy achieves that perfect balance of quaint and quiet days with entertaining and exciting evenings.


Just a few great places to go in Little Italy.

Magnificent views of the skyline from Taylor Street.
This whole being #1 thing
isn't new to Al's.

A house specialty at Three Aces.
Yes, that's bolognese ragu ON french fries.
Crazy delicious.




Little Italy (green) is an easy jaunt from the Loop (blue).
The larger red border surrounding Little Italy is the Near West Side community area.

3 comments:

  1. Great post this month! Can't wait to visit

    ReplyDelete