It’s Amore: A History of Little Italy

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It’s promoted as a tourist attraction, a restaurant district boasting authentic tastes of the Old Country. But Little Italy, found in the Near West Side of the Loop, is also the urban symbol of a proud Italian community that has been an integral part of Chicago’s culture since the late 1800s.

Of course there’s much more to the area than restaurants, but tourists are generally drawn to the row of eateries along Taylor St. The most well-known are Bacci Pizzeria, Rosebud, and Al’s #1 Italian Beef. Some other attractions are the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame, Our Lady of Pompeii Church, and – in the warmer months – Arrigo Park, a 6-acre oasis with a sculpture of Christopher Columbus. Naturally.

The first wave of Italian immigrants came to Chicago in the 1850s, most as merchants and laborers. After the restrictive immigration legislation that followed WWI the city’s foreign-born population was stabilized, making way for a generation of Italian-Americans who carried both Old-Country pride and American patriotism. The majority inhabited the greater Near West area of the city. The 1920s marked the beginning of an Italian shift to the western suburbs thanks to a general increase in wages and a greater financial stability among Italian families. After the Great Depression, and as jobs became more scarce, this group experienced a greater amount of prejudice. And of course the legacy of Al Capone and other Chicago “family” mobsters who made headlines in the 1920s led many to ignorantly throw criminal and Italian in the same barrel. Despite the economic hardships and the anti-Italian sentiments, by the late 1930s the proud group had created a vibrant urban presence with hundreds of authentic grocery stores, restaurants, and pastry shops concentrated around Taylor Street.

From the end of WWII through the 1960s a handful of urban developments on the Near West Side forced the remaining resident’s out to the western suburbs, changing the landscape of Little Italy from a residential community to the restaurant district it is today. Two projects in particular were the cause: the Eisenhower Expressway and the construction of the 100-acre University of Illinois-Chicago campus. As a result, about 800 homes were bulldozed and 5,000 residents pushed out to make room for these developments. Today most of Chicago’s Italian population lives in Cicero, Berwyn, and Oak Park.

Of course you don’t have to be in the heart of Little Italy to get authentic culture. On Grand Ave. between Aberdeen St. and May St. in West Town you’ll find old-time Italian markets where sausages are made by hand and Sicilian dialects are occasionally heard on the street. And for a taste of the best cuisine in Chicago (hey, that’s just my opinion) you should hop on the Pink Line to the Lower West Side’s “Heart of Italy.” Centered around the corner of 24th and Oakley Ave, this unique area is home to family-run restaurants such as Ignotz Restorante and Haro Tapas & Pintxos. This off-the-beaten-path corner is rarely visited by tourists because it’s… off the beaten path, but it’s worth a visit if you don’t mind a little ride on the CTA.

Whether you’re interested in Chicago’s ethnic history or you just want to grab a good sausage, a visit to Little Italy and its surrounding attractions are a must.

About Cheryl Thomas

Cheryl grew up in rural northern Indiana, where everyone is somehow related to a farmer and horse and buggy stations are in the Wal-Mart parking lots. She moved to Chicago a few months after graduating from IU and has since fallen hopelessly in love with the city. She likes trying new deep dish places, exploring used bookstores and dive bars, chatting with strangers on public transit, and all sorts of writing - especially fiction and playwriting.

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