Centered on Taylor Street on the near West Side, the Chicago Little Italy neighborhood offers its visitors a slice of Italy in the heart of the Midwest. It might not be as big as it once was, thanks to neighborhood changes over time, but that doesn't mean that the proud Italian-American locals have lost any pride. They also haven't lost their taste for good Italian food. As one might imagine, enticing Italian restaurants and food shops can be found in Little Italy Chicago, and that is enough to tempt some visitors. Also attracting visitors to Little Italy in Chicago is the historic Hull House, which was the country's first settlement house. Now a museum, Hull House is a must-see for anyone who is interested in Chicago history.
Settlement houses in America were created to provide various services to immigrants and young people who were essentially growing too old for foster care. Hull House in the Chicago catered mostly to European immigrants, many of whom were from Italy. As such, the Chicago Little Italy neighborhood sprung up around the Hull House complex. Although Italian immigrants started arriving in Chicago in the 1850s, their population numbers didn't really start to grow until the 1880s. This had a lot to do with the opening of Hull House, which occurred in 1889. Around the turn of the century, other ethnic groups in what was then referred to as the Hull House Neighborhood started moving to other parts of the city, which opened up more room for Italians to spread out. As such, the Chicago Little Italy neighborhood was created as the Hull House area became increasingly Italian-oriented.
By 1911, no fewer than thirteen buildings made up the Hull House complex, and in 1912, the Bowen Country Club, which served as a summer camp, was established. Over the following decades, the Hull House complex was changed and renovated as needed. In 1963, the original land on which the complex sat was purchased by the University of Illinois for the purpose of building its Circle Campus. The addition of the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical District and the construction of the Eisenhower Expressway, both of which occurred just after World War II, had already negatively affected the cohesion of Little Italy in Chicago, and the new UIC campus didn't help. Most of the Hull House buildings were demolished to build the new UIC Circle Campus, and only the original house and another house remain. They were moved some 200 yards from their original site. Now a museum, Hull House offers insight into the history of Little Italy Chicago as well as into life of its primary founder, Jane Addams.
The Chicago Little Italy neighborhood might not be what it once was, especially when it comes to the waning presence of locals with Italian ancestry, but it still merits a visit if you're interested in Chicago neighborhood tours. When you're not visiting the Hull House museum or enjoying some good Italian food on your visit to Little Italy in Chicago, you can always check out the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, which honors athletes of Italian descent. Formerly found in the village of Elmwood Park, this hall of fame and museum is now located on Taylor Street in the very heart of Little Italy Chicago.
This neighborhood on the near West Side wasn't the only area where Italians based themselves in the city, though it gets the most attention as such. Unfortunately, Little Italy in Chicago feels less Italian than it used to, and some might argue that the stretch of Grand Avenue in the West Town neighborhood boasts more of a Little Italy appeal. On the South Side, the Heart of Italy community, which is centered on 24th Street and Oakley, also gets quite a lot of attention, as it's here some of the best Italian restaurants in Chicago can be found. The neighborhood on the near West Side still holds its title as the city's main Little Italy, however, and you will do well to pay it a visit during your next Chicago vacation. The area is easy to get to from the Loop, so if nothing else, you can zip on in for a quick look when you're not shopping on the Magnificent Mile or taking in the downtown skyline.
Image: City of Chicago