Chicago’s got more Little Italys than it knows what to do with. There’s the multi-block stretch on North Harlem near Addison Street. A few blocks on West Grand near Ogden Avenue. Heart of Italy around Oakley Avenue and 24th Street. And, of course, Little Italy on Taylor Street. No, Chicago’s problem isn’t that we don’t have enough enclaves of Italian businesses.
It’s that we don’t have a good one.
That’s poised to change this fall and winter, when a handful of restaurateurs sweep into the Taylor Street area in an aggressive attempt at revival. “I want to bring back Little Italy,” says Scott Harris, whose restaurants on the strip include Francesca’s on Taylor (1400 W Taylor St, 312-829-2828) and the recently opened Davanti Enoteca (1359 W Taylor St, 312-226-5550). The timing seems particularly ripe: Just a few years ago the ’hood was plagued by enough crime to give it a dodgy reputation. “When I opened Francesca’s in 1984, you had to walk the girls to their car at night,” he remembers. But now, with the expansion of the university and the medical district, and CHA’s Roosevelt Square development replacing the ABLA projects, Harris says, “We can bring it back.”
There’s evidence that a resurgence has already started: This spring, The Bar 10 Doors (1259 W Taylor St, 312-226-1611) opened on the eastern edge of Taylor, bringing the neighborhood a badly needed outlet for watching the Bears. Next door, the owners opened a restaurant, One. Six One. Just two months later, Stax Cafe (1401 W Taylor St, 312-733-9871), a diner, opened to help offset the breakfast crowds that have been lining up for years at Sweet Maple Cafe (1339 W Taylor St, 312-243-8908).
And yet the real changes to the strip are still coming. Directly off of Taylor Street, at 626 S Racine Ave, Harris and Jimmy Bannos will reopen a Little Italy stalwart, Gennaro’s. Then, in the original Gennaro’s space, Harris hopes to open what he is tentatively calling The Ballroom, a shop serving 50 types of meatballs and, for dessert, waffles with ice cream. Following that, he has his eye on a bakery he wants to reopen, as well as a couple of gelato shops.
Meanwhile, Lyle Aker and Anthony Potenzo are turning the former Bar Louie space into Three Aces (1321 W Taylor St), a bar with food the guys describe as “Italian countryside meets the American farmhouse and Keith Richards’s basement.” Potenzo grew up in the neighborhood, and though it has “obviously changed a lot” since his childhood, he was inspired to return due to the neighborhood’s business potential. “When you have this kind of diversity in the ’hood,” he says, referring to the hospitals and University of Illinois buildings that surround the area, “I think it’s a no-lose situation for businesses like ours.” Three Aces will offer an all-American lineup of beers and the contemporary Italian food of chef Matt Troost. But, like Harris, they don’t want to change the Italian-American feel of the neighborhood so much as reinvigorate it. They’re toying with the idea of adding bocce ball to their patio in the warmer months and maybe hanging the Italian flag out front. “It’s really important for the neighborhood to really secure the identity down here,” Aker says. “And say: This is Little Italy.”