Italian immigrants settled in several different parts of Chicago, but no enclave was bigger than Little Italy on the Near West Side. With years of drastic changes beginning in the 1960s, it’s only a shell of its former self, but the neighborhood still maintains an Italian flavor.
In the late 1800s, the Near West Side was one of the biggest, dirtiest, and most overpopulated slums in the world. Over 60% of the residents were foreign-born. The majority of people in the area were of Italian, Greek, and Jewish descent, but the latter two and dozens of other ethnic groups slowly moved out to other areas making it overwhelmingly Italian. The Italian population of the neighborhood peaked in the 1950s but the decision to build the new University of Illinois at Chicago, the Eisenhower Expressway, and the Medical District meant that many people would be displaced. Since then, gentrification has occurred. Many condos and townhouses have sprung up and the neighborhood is completely unrecognizable to those who knew it in the 1950s.
Today’s Little Italy is centered around Taylor Street, the historic heart of the Italian enclave. Many popular Italian restaurants among other attractions are located there. The area is also known as University Village.
National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame
The National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame is the biggest cultural attraction in Little Italy. It was founded in 1977 as the Italian American Boxing Hall of Fame but just a year later expanded to include all sports. It moved from suburban Elmwood Park to Arlington Heights in 1988. In 1998, Chicago area native Jerry Colangelo donated funds to build a new facility in Little Italy. It opened in 2000 and displays countless important artifacts from Italian American athletes.
The main gallery on the first floor is divided by sport, including American football, baseball, boxing, Olympic sports, and more. The most prominent athletes are featured on the first floor while famous but lesser-known athletes are honored on the second floor.
In the center of the gallery on the first floor are a few of the most priceless artifacts in the museum. Matt Biondi’s Olympic medals, Louis Zamperini’s running shoes, and Alan Ameche’s 1954 Heisman Trophy are just a few of the items. Mario Andretti’s Indianapolis 500 race car hangs from the ceiling. The museum has an admission of US$5.
Across the street from the hall of fame is Piazza DiMaggio. This small plaza has fountains and a statue of New York Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio.
The rest of the neighborhood is pleasant to walk through. There are several beautiful homes in the area north of Taylor Street to Harrison Street. The homes along Bishop Street just north of Piazza DiMaggio and Lexington Street caught my eye.
Arrigo Park was established in 1857 as Vernon Park. In 1974, it was renamed in honor of Victor Arrigo, a prominent Italian-American community leader. The western end of the park features a fountain with a statue of Christopher Columbus by sculptor Moses Ezekiel.
The history and diversity of what is now Little Italy can be seen in its churches. The Italian community built Our Lady of Pompeii in 1911. It’s now a shrine rather than a church, and can be visited daily.
Notre Dame de Chicago is a bit older. It was built in 1892 as the city’s first French church. The numbers of the French congregation dwindled but the church remains the best-preserved French immigrant monument in the city.
Holy Family Catholic Church is the city’s second oldest surviving church. It was founded by Irish immigrants, completed in 1860, and survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Ironically, the O’Leary family who started the fire were parishioners of the church. They lived only a few blocks to the east. Holy Family has the oldest stained glass windows in Chicago.
St. Basil Greek Orthodox Church has represented two of the vibrant communities that lived in the area. It was built in 1910 as the Anshe Sholom Synagogue by the Jewish community and in 1927 was sold and converted into a Greek Orthodox church. It was the first Greek church to be designated a cathedral in Chicago.
Finally, Little Italy can’t be talked about without mentioning the University of Illinois at Chicago. I wrote earlier about thousands of people of different ethnic groups being displaced in the 1960s by the construction of the university. Homes and businesses from Halsted to Racine and Harrison to Roosevelt were razed to make way for the university, including the Hull House. Community activists were furious at Mayor Richard J. Daley for the plan, which some believed was racist against the “undesirable” southern European and Mexican immigrants who lived there. Many people thought that using the abandoned Dearborn Street Station area around Printer’s Row would have been a better option than displacing thousands and destroying an important ethnic neighborhood. On the map below, you can see how much land was used for the university.
The university doesn’t have a very attractive campus. The buildings were designed by Walter Netsch using Brutalist architecture. The tallest building is University Hall. It’s 338 feet tall and is actually 20 feet wider at the top than at its base. Also on campus is the UIC Pavilion, a 9,500 seat arena used for a variety of events, including basketball, boxing, rallies, and concerts.
Little Italy can be reached with the Pink Line stop at Polk or the Blue Line stop at Racine. The UIC/Halsted Blue Line stop is the closest to UIC.