No matter what part of the city you’re coming from, getting to University Village/Little Italy isn’t difficult. Aside from the Pink and Blue line stops at UIC and the Medical District, more than eight bus routes snake through the neighborhood. While taking the 8 north up Halsted is the easiest way to bisect the neighborhood, you get an impromptu lesson in Chicago history if you take an east-west route. Driving west brings passengers near the Jane Addams Hull House, the site of the former ABLA homes, and the Original Al’s Italian Beef.
When the University of Illinois at Chicago was built in the 1960s, home and business owners in Little Italy were pushed out of the neighborhood to make way for UIC’s 100-acre campus. Many residents and community activists opposed the construction of the university, forming a rift between the two halves of the neighborhood once the university was completed. The “new” neighborhood’s community organization—the University Village/Little Italy Association—wasn’t established until 1981, over twenty years after the plans for constructing UIC were finalized.
In recent years, the community has struck a balance between its past and present. Stores and restaurants that you’d be hard pressed to find here twenty years ago—like a Mexican street food joint and a street-art-inspired clothing store—are thriving. The city’s oldest firehouse on Roosevelt Road has been repurposed as a community art space. Residents who remember the old days are resilient: they adapt their traditions to the needs of a neighborhood that bustles with students and residents from diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds. But none of these changes—even the addition of a Papa John’s on Taylor—take away from the authenticity of Little Italy.
This August, the ninth annual Chicago Festa Italiana was held on Taylor Street between Ashland and Racine. Restaurants and other neighborhood vendors set up booths, performance stages showcased local talent, and Joey Chestnut wannabes competed in meatball eating contests. For those three days, both lifelong residents and newcomers danced, ate, and sang together, just a few weeks before the Class of 2019 was set to arrive on campus at UIC. The absence of an Italian grocery on every corner does not mean that the spirit of community of the old Little Italy is gone. Together, as University Village and Little Italy, that spirit and drive continues, stronger than ever before. (Emily Lipstein)
Best Breakfast With Heart and Soul
Sweet Maple Cafe
When you live in an urban center like Chicago, where gastro-pub-loving foodies thrive, it sometimes seems easier to find food from of a chemist’s lab than from a kitchen. If you’re looking for food with a little more heart and soul, look no further than Sweet Maple Cafe.
Walking inside whisks you back in time to a 1970s Southern kitchen, with paint peeling off the mustard colored walls, rust covering the iron sconces, and brick red tablecloths, topped by a slim vase of fresh lilies. Canvas prints of old-time photographs hang around the room.
Included among the classic breakfast options like the Sweet Maple Special—two eggs any style, with a side of bacon or country sausage, home fries or grits, and your choice of biscuit or toast—are items with a little more flair, like Chorrisimo Tacos or Fish-N-Eggs. The specials board screams “Catfish!” without any other details, implying that it is so regularly served and well loved that it needs no further explanation.
Amidst hollers from the kitchen, the servers hustle to bring plates of food to the dining area. No one waits more than a minute for a refill, and food arrives within ten minutes of placing your order. From the food, to the feel, to the look, Sweet Maple Café is a home away from home for every Chicagoan.
Sweet Maple Cafe, 1339 W. Taylor Street. Open every day, 7am–2pm. Breakfast all day, lunch 11:30am–2pm. (312) 243-8908. sweetmaplecafe.com (Megan Koehnen)
Scafuri Bakery has been open since 2013 or 1904, depending on whom you ask. While the business hasn’t been in the same building the whole time (it moved to this spot on Taylor Street in the 1930s), there are over a hundred years of history within its walls and in every cookie, doughnut, and cannoli it sells. Opened in 1904 by Luigi Scafuri and run by his daughter Annette after his death in 1955, the bakery closed when Annette turned 90 in 2007. It reopened in 2013, driven by Annette’s great-grandniece Michelle and great-granddaughter Kelly. Photos of the family adorn the walls of the bakery, which now features a café menu and espresso bar. Some of the old recipes are still used, but nobody sings Italian opera to the dough as Kelly’s great-great-grandfather did. “I really wanted to play up the tradition and cater to it, while, at the same time, also focus on the current neighborhood,” Kelly explained. This summer, as part of Kelly’s goal to create a neighborhood space, the bakery held an after-hours art event with music, poetry, and performances. She believes that it’s the “marriage of the old and the new” that makes Scafuri work. She considers the new recipes they’ve added to the menu successful, but she admits, “It’s always the best compliment when someone says, ‘Oh, this tastes like my grandma’s cookie.’ It’s like ‘All right, we’re doing it right!’ ”
Scafuri Bakery, 1337 W. Taylor Street, Tuesday-Sunday, 7am–4pm. Free Wi-Fi. (312) 773-8881. scafuribakery.com (Emily Lipstein)
Mario’s Italian Ice
Now in its sixty-first consecutive summer of operation on Taylor Street, Mario’s Italian Ice (named for its founder Mario DiPaolo) is a child’s wildest business dreams come true: a successful walk-up lemonade stand. Tourists, locals, and students from nearby St. Ignatius hang around the stand at all hours of the day, scarfing down Italian ice in flavors that range from pomegranate (undeniably a standout) to chocolate (more of an acquired taste). Most flavors come with slices of real lemon, too, which help to temper the artificial sweetener. Come for the orders shouted in unbelievable accents, stay for the across-the-street view of “Honorary Original Al’s #1 Italian Beef Boulevard,” which by all appearances is a parking lot for said Al’s, where, coincidentally, you can buy huge bags of real ice for only a dollar.
Mario’s Italian Ice, 1068 W. Taylor Street. Open every day 10am–12pm, May–September. More info available on Facebook and Yelp. (Jake Bittle)
Best Price Per Pound
Market Fresh Books
Market Fresh Books is a relatively new addition to the neighborhood. This used bookstore operates on an unusual pricing model, selling books for a little more than five dollars per pound. Buy backs supply the store’s selection, which explains its eclectic and nostalgic overtones; you can find anything that’s ever been on Oprah’s Book Club list in (at least) triplicate. There are nearly three shelves dedicated to the “For Dummies” series and even more for the once popular Twilight Saga. Textbooks and review guides for every subject are stacked on shelves almost as high as the ceiling, allowing the students of University Village and the nearby Medical District to purchase their course materials at a steep discount. There’s nearly every edition of a Shakespeare play one could hope for, and an entirely separate back room for all of the books you’d forgotten you read as a child. But the magic of the store does not stop with its collection of books: used DVDs are three dollars per disc, CDs of every genre (including one by forgotten American Idol Season Two winner Ruben Studdard) are stacked on low shelves by the front, and there’s enough sheet music to turn anyone into a virtuoso. While the collection of books at Market Fresh is not immense, adequate time should be devoted to running your fingers along the spines of long-forgotten favorites.
Market Fresh Books, 1076 W. Taylor Street. Open every day, noon–6pm. marketfreshbooks.com (Emily Lipstein)
Best Sandwich (Ever)
Conte Di Savoia
Have you ever fallen in love with a sandwich? Conte di Savoia is the perfect place to do just that. Since 1948, it has served the neighborhood well as an all-in-one Italian food wonderland: part lunch spot, part caterer, part specialty grocer. Though the vast selection of Italian meats, wines, and frozen foods (try the pesto gnocchi) is more than enough to satisfy, the real star of Conte di Savoia is the good old classic Italian sandwich. You’ve got your salami, capicola, and ham with provolone, lettuce, tomato, and oil and vinegar on Italian bread. There’s nothing missing from this sandwich; the bread-to-meat ratio is perfect. And best of all, it only costs five dollars. Conte di Savoia sells other classic sandwiches and salads, too, but if you could only order one type of sandwich for the rest of your life, you’d better make it the Italian.
Conte di Savoia, 1438 W. Taylor Street. Monday–Friday, 9am–7pm; Saturday, 9am–6pm; Sunday 9am–4pm. (312) 666-3471. contedisavoia.com (Emily Lipstein)