CHICAGO — Red sauce and wine still flow on Little Italy’s Taylor Street, and the saganaki still flames on Greektown’s strip of Halsted.
But there is less Italian and Greek heritage on the menu these days on two of Chicago’s best-known dining corridors.
“We have tourists come in and ask, ‘Where is Little Italy?’ ” said Ralph Davino, third-generation owner of Pompei, one of a handful of Italian restaurants that remain on Taylor Street. “I have to tell them it’s gone.”
The Italian and Greek flair that distinguished those neighborhoods has been ebbing for years, a result of changes in demographics and consumers’ palates. The booming Fulton Market district nearby and encroaching real estate development added new pressures. Some worry the pandemic will be the final straw.
One of Greektown’s remaining stalwarts, Santorini, is in danger of losing its longtime home because its landlord is interested in selling to a residential developer, according to real estate experts.
Two of Little Italy’s best-known restaurants, Francesca’s and Davanti Enoteca, closed their doors for good in June. Pompei’s property, on the western edge of Little Italy, is on the market for sale for $4.9 million. The restaurant wants to move into a smaller space in a redeveloped building on the site, Davino said.
Chicago history is filled with examples of neighborhoods that changed cultural identities, including past Italian and Greek enclaves, and other strongholds in the city have worries too. Chinatown was particularly hard-hit in the early days of the pandemic. Others, like Pilsen’s Mexican community and Polish pockets along Milwaukee Avenue, face pressures associated with gentrification. Similar changes are happening in some other cities.
Still, the demise of two notable examples so close to the Loop would be a blow for a city that prides itself on its patchwork of distinct neighborhoods that showcase Chicago’s immigrant heritage.
“If these ethnic commercial districts are lost, Chicago might lose some legitimacy as a global city,” said Curt Winkle, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who lives in Little Italy.
‘The mystery of Little Italy’
Scott Harris, who opened Little Italy’s Francesca’s in 1996 and Davanti Enoteca in 2000, said he had considered closing before the pandemic as business weakened due to competition from the craft cocktails and Michelin stars of Fulton Market, but he didn’t want to abandon the neighborhood. The government’s March mandate to close dining rooms to contain COVID-19 “was the end of it.”
“We were just breaking even and I’m not in the business to break even,” said Harris, who operates 26 Francesca’s Restaurants locations. “It showed no signs of coming back.”
Other areas hold more promise, especially in the suburbs. “We’re looking to do a new Davanti in Naperville, where we’ll make a lot of money,” Harris said.
The owner of Francesca’s longtime home is close to finalizing a deal for an Indian restaurant to take over that space, said broker Daniel Hyman of Millennium Properties R/E, who is representing the landlord.
“It’s not that Italian food isn’t popular,” Hyman said. “The neighborhood is changing.”
It has been changing for a long while.
Many Italian residents were displaced from the neighborhood when the University of Illinois at Chicago was built in the 1960s. Expansion of the university campus and the Illinois Medical District just west of Little Italy, which often is lumped together with the University Village neighborhood, prompted more longtime residents to leave.
The Italian identity was kept alive by food as well as the area’s landmark Roman Catholic churches and monuments like the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, which moved from the neighborhood last year.
When Tuscany on Taylor opened in 1990, there were about 20 classic Italian restaurants on the corridor, owner Phil Stefani said. The ’90s were a heyday as the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls games at the nearby the United Center drew pregame and postgame diners who spent big.
Stefani regrets the missed opportunities to fortify Little Italy as a destination.
He remembers sitting in a meeting 20 years ago to hear a man’s plan to do in Chicago what he had done in San Diego’s Little Italy, where pavers, string lights and a succession of Italian restaurants have created a bustling dining corridor. But at the time, business was good and there was no urgency.
The loss of prominent Little Italy boosters, including unofficial “mayor of Little Italy” Oscar D’Angelo, who died in 2016, and National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame founder George Randazzo, who died last year, has left a leadership vacuum, he said.
In recent years Tuscany has relied more on lunchtime regulars from the nearby hospital, plus business from concerts and other United Center events, as Randolph Street and Fulton Market pull customers away.
“It’s more of an atmosphere,” Stefani’s son, Anthony Stefani, said of the booming West Loop. “You can make a night out of it and visit different places. I feel like the younger generation likes to jump around more, they’re not so devoted to certain restaurants.”
Tuscany’s business had been consistent, but the pandemic has pushed revenue down at least 60%.
“It’s my heritage. I don’t want to see Taylor Street go down,” said Phil Stefani, who named the restaurant after his mother’s birthplace in Italy. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep it going, we just need a little support.”
Alex Dana, founder of Rosebud restaurants, stands outside The Rosebud on Sept. 29, 2020, on Taylor Street in Chicago. The Little Italy corner is also marked with an honorary Alex Dana Way sign.
A few blocks away at The Rosebud, the cornerstone of red sauce classics on Taylor Street, owner Alex Dana is unconcerned. His institution has been there since 1976 and still draws customers from across the region who come for a no-frills vodka sauce rigatoni or chicken cacciatore.
Dana wishes Taylor Street had more energy, more restaurants like Chinatown does, more investment from the city to spruce up the streetscape. But he thinks the recent conversion of the nearby Cook County Hospital into an ornate Hyatt hotel will push growth toward the area.
“I see a great future,” Dana said. The investment “sends a message that this place is happening.”
Little Italy, like Rosebud, has a brand that gives it staying power, said Dana, who goes by “Boss” and has an honorary street named after him. His Taylor Street mainstay, the first of his eight restaurants, is a repository of Chicago legend.
A favorite story was the time Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. arrived after an appearance at the Chicago Theatre, loosened their suspenders and took over the place, yelling out orders for calamari and spaghetti and meatballs and leaving $1,000 tips. The bar is made of rose-colored marble salvaged from the restroom partitions of an old Maxwell Street department store.
“It’s the mystery of Little Italy,” Dana said. “It still has that mystery.”
‘Wonderful era’ lost
When people remember Greektown’s most colorful era they often point to Diana Restaurant and its gregarious owner, Peter Kogeones, the unofficial “mayor of Greektown.” He’d greet women with a kiss, teach customers Greek dances and ply people with shots of ouzo or Metaxa as they waited for a table.
The raucous “opa!” environment of the ’70s and ’80s calmed after Kogeones died in 1990, and Diana’s closed. But other restaurants and bars opened and made Greektown a big dining and nightlife draw in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Many of those businesses left in the past decade, and the neighborhood faces its biggest transition since the previous Greektown area shifted northward to allow for construction of the Eisenhower Expressway in the 1950s and UIC’s arrival in the ’60s.
As residential developers scout the area immediately west of the Loop, family-owned restaurants —especially those without a next generation willing to take over the business — struggle to justify paying high rents or reject lucrative offers for their properties.
In 2010, the Halsted building that housed Costa’s Greek Dining and Bar burned down. It was replaced by The Van Buren, one of several apartment buildings that have added hundreds of units to Greektown in recent years.
The Parthenon restaurant, where the iconic flaming saganaki dish was said to be invented, closed in 2016 after 48 years in business. The Ambassador Public House, a sports bar serving pub grub, has since taken over the space.
Pegasus Restaurant and Taverna served its last meal in 2017 after 27 years in business. Roditys ended a 45-year run in 2018.
The restaurant Santorini, seen Oct. 8, 2020, in Chicago’s Greektown neighborhood, faces an uncertain future. Sources say owners of the property have been in talks with developers.
The restaurant Santorini, seen Oct. 8, 2020, in Chicago’s Greektown neighborhood, faces an uncertain future. Sources say owners of the property have been in talks with developers. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)
Santorini, which has anchored a prominent corner at Halsted and Adams streets for 31 years, faces an uncertain future. The property’s owners have talked with multiple residential developers interested in buying the site, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Santorini owner Jim Kontos could not be reached for comment.
The fall of several Greektown pillars has shaken the neighborhood’s cultural identity.
“Losing another staple would make it really hard to keep on with this Greektown motto because there would be very little to stand on,” said Dalila Youkhana, manager at Athena Restaurant, which opened on the former Diana’s site in 1997.
Though Greek residents long ago dispersed to the suburbs or elsewhere in the city, the commercial hub still plays a role in keeping people feeling connected to their heritage.
“The biggest craving anyone can have is the sense of a belonging to a community,” said George Reveliotis, co-owner of the Greek cafe Artopolis, which opened on Halsted in 2000. “The more dis-attached we get from the immigrants that came here, the more we need certain reminders, and we are guided by our taste, our sense of smell.”
Helen Paspalas, third-generation owner of Athenian Candle, founded 100 years ago, remembers how her grandmother “smelled like the store, the incenses and the beeswaxes.”
Paspalas spent her childhood visiting not only the Greek restaurants but also the Greek grocery store, bakery, music store and travel agency. The sound of bouzouki, a Greek mandolin, spilled from the nightclubs.
“That was a wonderful era,” she said. “And now it’s just lost.”
Paspalas, whose family owns the building, gets queries from developers, and “we take it day by day,” she said. But as Athenian Candle, which makes candles for Greek and Orthodox churches, marks its centennial, she feels she is a steward of its legacy.
“We plan to make it to 101, to 102,” she said.
Business owners blame Greektown’s fading appeal on numerous factors, from lack of parking to high rents and taxes to changing tastes.
“People I don’t think are interested anymore in lighting the saganaki and saying ‘opa,’” said Yianni Theoharris, who opened the Halsted Street restaurant 9 Muses in 1989 and the adjacent brunch spot Meli in 2006.
But they also have faith it can bounce back.
If a few restaurants, Greek or not, move into the vacant spaces and create more of an atmosphere, “that’s the creation of a piazza that the Italians say or an agora as the Greeks say, where everyone is around,” Theoharris said.
Reveliotis and a partner bought Artopolis last year, with plans to remodel and make the menu more contemporary. A failure to keep up with modern Greek cuisine is one reason the neighborhood has fallen out of favor, he said.
Athena has done interior renovations and freshened ingredients to battle perceptions among young people that Greektown is “old,” said Youkhana, whose Assyrian family bought Athena five years ago. It was a delicate balancing act so as not to alienate customers by changing too much.
Initial fear of competition from neighboring Fulton Market has subsided, Youkhana said. The growth is now proving to be a boon as residents seek different kinds of dining experiences, she said.
Greek Islands, which has operated in the neighborhood for 50 years under the same ownership, was seeing increasing sales before the pandemic, said manager Angelo Petratos. Though it has received many offers to sell its building over the past six years, it plans to anchor the north end of the corridor “for many years to come,” he said.
The development in the area has brought a more diverse set of businesses, from grocery stores to Starbucks. Wild Fork Foods, a specialty meat and seafood market, is set to open next summer in a vacant bank building at Halsted and Monroe streets.
Though the new businesses aren’t Greek, Tessie Koumi, co-owner of the sports bar Spectrum, doesn’t feel they are diluting the soul of the neighborhood. Festivals, a street art program and the National Hellenic Museum, which opened on Halsted in 2011, are introducing more people to Greek culture, she said.
Spectrum, which has been on Halsted since 1988, added rock and blues bands on weekends to appeal to a larger crowd, Koumi said. Still, during nonpandemic times, it has monthly Greek nights, complete with traditional plate smashing.
Lower rents ahead
It’s unlikely Little Italy or Greektown will ever duplicate their heyday, but the health crisis could spark a comeback of sorts.
Cultural neighborhoods will experience the greatest recovery in cities where landlords work with restaurateurs on creative leases, such as those where rents are based on sales, Colicchio said. In Chicago, the permanent closure of some restaurants will reduce what some say is an oversupply.
With widespread vacancies pushing down rents, it could create opportunities in areas such as Greektown and Little Italy as the economy recovers, experts say.
“I think what’s going to happen is, rents post-COVID will make it attractive again for good operators to go back into the neighborhoods,” said real estate broker Scott Maesel of SVN Chicago.
And if that doesn’t happen?
“Character, culture and old-school Chicago — I think you’re losing all of that,” Maesel said. “There’s something about the neighborhood restaurant.”
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