Ever seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding? If you have, then you may have realized it was set in Chicago. And if you have paid a visit to Chicago’s Greektown, you may also have realized that all those stereotypes from the movie are pretty much true. If you didn’t notice or haven’t seen it, it would only take a short visit to the land of gyros and saganaki to experience delicious Greek food and understand what a strong presence Greeks have in Chicago. As you drive down Halsted you’ll know you’ve hit Greektown when you spot the Greek columns and you see the blue of the Greek flag splashed on every sign you pass.
If you’re a lover of gyros and saganaki (that delicious flaming cheese), you can thank Chicago’s Greek community, who first brought these tasty delights to the country in 1968. It was long before then that they arrived in the city, though. Greeks began heavily immigrating to Chicago in the 1840s, creating schools and churches as well as becoming prosperous restaurant owners. They concentrated around the Harrison, Blue Island, and Halsted area, creating the beginnings of Chicago’s Greektown. In the 1960s, they were forced to move a couple blocks North to accommodate the Eisenhower Expressway and the University of Illinois at Chicago, solidifying the area we know today as Greektown.
In 1996, Chicago hosted the Democratic National Convention, necessitating some improvements to the city. Chicago recognized Greektown by building traditional Greek temples and pavilions at major intersections, in addition to pouring millions of dollars into street renovations. Each year Greektown hosts a Greek Independence Day parade and the Taste of Greece food festival. The food festival also boats traditional Greek music and entertainment. There is also always a flurry of activity in the neighborhood surrounding Greek Easter.
The neighborhood is home to the Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center, currently at its temporary location at 801 W. Adams Street. Visitors to the center can learn more about Greek immigration through over 6,000 photos, books, objects, recordings, and visual testimonials that explain what it was life growing up Greek in America. The museum is located on the 4th floor of the Greek Islands building and has a $5 admission cost. The site plans to move to 333 W. Halsted as soon as the permanent building is constructed.
Today you can still find people speaking Greek in the neighborhood and experience some delicious baklava, saganaki, and other traditional Greek favorites. I love the restaurant Greek Islands, but you really can’t go wrong with any of them (and anything lamb) along Halsted. There isn’t a lot of parking in the neighborhood, so taking a cab or public transportation is recommended, though some restaurants do have valet or parking lots.