CHICAGO - From Greektown to Chinatown, from the Polish Triangle to Pakistani restaurants on Devon Street, Chicago has a wealth of diverse ethnic neighborhoods to explore.
Chicago is known as a city of neighborhoods and Patricia Sullivan, manager of the city's Chicago Neighborhood Tours program, said visitors need to leave the tourist-heavy Loop and Michigan Avenue areas to really see the different ethnic and cultural corners of the city.
"They're distinct and they're beautiful," Sullivan said. "The architecture is different, as are the restaurants and the stores. It's really a melting pot."
By no means an exhaustive list, here are highlights of some of Chicago's ethnic neighborhoods:
CHINATOWN: Visitors to this neighborhood on Chicago's near South Side will be greeted by the large red and green Chinatown Gate on Wentworth Avenue and Cermak Road. Here are blocks of stores to explore that sell Chinese slippers and robes, trinkets and bamboo plants alongside Chinese tea shops and herbalists. Restaurants range from nicer sit-down eateries to small take-out establishments. The neighborhood is home to the annual Chinese Lunar New Year parade with marching bands and floats. The community also hosts a summer concert series that includes traditional Chinese music in Chinatown Square along with a Chinatown summer fair each July. The Chinese-American Museum of Chicago (238 West 23rd St.) has been closed since a fire in September, 2008. For more information: chicagochinatown.org.
GREEKTOWN: It's clear you've reached Greektown when you read the signage on the local Walgreens drugstore - it's written in Greek. Greektown stretches along Halsted Street from Van Buren Street north to Washington Street in the city's West Loop neighborhood. Fancier restaurants with names such as Pegasus, Parthenon, and Santorini serve saganaki (fried cheese) and spanakopita (spinach pie). They're located alongside bakeries, candle shops, and corner fast food eateries where you can order take-out gyros. The cultural center focuses around the National Hellenic Museum (801 West Adams St.), where museum officials say visitors can see folk art and textile exhibits. The museum also boasts an oral history center that lets listeners wear headsets to hear Greek immigrants tell their stories. Each August the neighborhood hosts a Taste of Greece festival. The Greek Independence Day Parade is in the spring. For more information: greektownchicago.org and nationalhellenicmuseum.org.
LITTLE ITALY: Chicago's Italian community is centered along Taylor Street on the city's near West Side bordered by the University of Illinois-Chicago campus. Dennis O'Neill, director of the neighborhood's University Village Association, says visitors who walk west on Taylor from Halsted to Ashland Avenue will discover the area's rich dining history. The street is lined with fancy Italian restaurants that serve pasta and steaks as well as take-out pizza and sandwich eateries. Among them are the red awnings of Al's Italian Beef (1079 West Taylor) where you can get 8-inch-long beef sandwiches with peppers and cheese. In the summer, lines form outside Mario's Italian Lemonade (1068 West Taylor) for frosty to-go Italian ices. The neighborhood also is home to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame (1431 West Taylor), niashf.org, where you can see boxer Rocky Marciano's 1952 championship belt and Mario Andretti's race car. Across the street, O'Neill says visitors shouldn't miss Joe DiMaggio Plaza's fountain and statue of the baseball great.
MEXICAN: Those looking to capture Mexican culture can tour both the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods on Chicago's near south and west sides. In Pilsen, start on Halsted and 18th streets and walk west to Ashland. Carlos Tortolero, president and founder of the neighborhood's National Museum of Mexican Art (1852 West 19th St.), says visitors will find affordable taquerias, art galleries, churches, and shops selling religious goods. For restaurants, try La Cebollita (1807 South Ashland) for sopes (dough patties with various toppings) or Taqueria El Milagro (1923 South Blue Island Ave.). In Little Village, an arch welcomes visitors with the words "Bienvenidos a La Villita" at 26th Street and Albany Avenue. Walk west along 26th and the area stretches for more than a mile. Luis Alva, director of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce, says the neighborhood has more than 70 Mexican restaurants along with candy stores, bakeries, and shops selling Mexican-style dresses, boots, hats, and belts. The neighborhood hosts an annual Mexican Independence Day festival and parade. For more information: lavillitachamber.org and nationalmuseumofmexicanart.org.
POLISH: There are several Polish areas in Chicago and the suburbs, but the main neighborhoods are along Milwaukee Avenue. Start at the historic Polish Triangle - the intersection of Milwaukee Avenue, Division Street, and Damen Avenue. At the beginning of the last century, this neighborhood was crowded with Polish immigrants and businesses, says Jan Lorys, director of the Polish Museum of America. The museum (984 North Milwaukee) is a few blocks southeast on Milwaukee, where visitors can see Polish folk costumes and crafts among other exhibits. A good place to get a meal nearby is Podhalanka (1549 West Division), a small kitchen serving homestyle Polish food. Then travel northwest on Milwaukee to Belmont Avenue. Here, Lorys says, you'll find a neighborhood lined with Polish groceries, bakeries, bookstores, and shops. A popular restaurant in this area is the Red Apple Buffet (3121 North Milwaukee) where you can eat a Polish dinner for $10-$11. For more information: polishmuseumofamerica.org.
SOUTH ASIAN: Immigrants started opening businesses along Devon Avenue on Chicago's North Side in the early 1970s and the area now is a bustling district, says Lakshmi Menon of the Indo-American Heritage Museum (6328 North California Ave.). Start at California and walk east along Devon and the neighborhood stretches for more than 10 city blocks. Menon suggests a good first stop would be at a grocery where ethnic foods and special cooking utensils line the shelves. Popular grocery stores include Patel Brothers (2610 West Devon) or Kamdar Plaza (2646 West Devon). Sit-down, buffet, and take-out restaurants serve tandoori dishes and naan breads while sweet shops have ethnic desserts. Try Hema's Kitchen (2439 West Devon) or the vegetarian Udupi Palace (2543 West Devon), and for Pakistani cuisine, try Sabri Nehari, (2502 West Devon), which is known, and named, for a stringy meat delicacy. Merchants along the street stock colorful sari dresses, embroidered outfits, and an array of jewelry. The Indo-American museum offers guided tours by appointment at http://www.iahmuseum.org/.
CHICAGO NEIGHBORHOOD TOURS: If you'd rather have a guided tour, Chicago Neighborhood Tours offers bus rides between 3 and 4 1/2 hours long. Tours go through Chinatown, Greektown, Little Italy, Pilsen, and Little Village. They also offer special interest tours, including Greek Chicago, Polish Chicago, and Irish Chicago. Neighborhood tours are $25 for seniors and $30 for adults. Special interest tours include lunch and are $50 for adults and $45 for seniors. See chicagoneighborhoodtours.com for more information.