Italian immigrants to Chicago faced many drastic changes in their environments and way of life. The bustling new metropolis was very different from an Italian rural village. The mass of new Italian immigrants who entered the city in the late nineteenth century, primarily men from the small towns surrounding Palermo, Sicily were either single or had left their wives and children back in Italy. Frugality was essential. Most workers saved their wages to repay initial passage money, send funds to needy family members left behind or to purchase land in Italy.
In the summers many Italian laborers lived in railroad or mining work camps where food was provided by the padrone who recruited them. In the winter, workers returned to Chicago where they frequently lived cooperatively, sharing meals and kitchen chores.
When possible, single men boarded with Italian families, a practice unknown in Italy. Boarding, freed men from the necessity of doing any of their own housework, while providing supplemental income for the families who housed them. Lodging and boarding continued in the Italian communities until immigration was curtailed by World War One.
With time, many men had a new reason to economize. As months of saving stretched into years, most immigrants decided to settle permanently in the city, so passage money was put aside for wives, children and other relatives to come to the U.S. Eventually, family members joined the men.
While wages in Chicago exceeded those of Italy, the railway and street work at which many Italian men were employed, was intermittent and low paying. Garment work, done at home by Italian women, added only a meager amount to the family income. Italian laborers did much of the grueling ditch digging and manual labor which the growing city required. Women struggled to keep house in the cramped confines of tenement flats. Small flats of two to four rooms were common. Sinks and toilets were sometimes located in yards, halls or basements and water was unavailable when plumbing froze in winter. Basement and cellar flats were common due to the large number of homes below street level and “many a kitchen floor, the only playground for the children, was cold, damp and water-soaked.”
Settlement worker Edith Abbot reported that in tenement homes food was hung from the ceilings to keep it away from the rats. The kitchen sometimes doubled as sleeping space for family members or lodgers. As late as 1925, ice-boxes were uncommon on the Near West Side and window sills were often the best means available to keep perishable food cold. As city dwellers and renters, Italians lost the option of supplementing their diets with home-grown foods. Many made valiant efforts to garden in the minuscule backyards and on the fire escapes and porches of tenement homes, where tomatoes, peppers and parsley struggled for existence in the cramped spaces.
Terese DeFalco, who grew up on the Near West Side, recalls that there was no room for gardening amidst the densely packed housing in her neighborhood. “Our garden was the alley,” she says. Most food was purchased and Italians spent a large proportion of their incomes on food. Under these conditions, lessons learned in Italy remained relevant. Diets consisting of bread, macaroni and vegetables remained the norm among Italian immigrant families. Homemade Italian bread, with its thick crust and heavy texture, provided bulk at the evening meal and stayed fresh long enough to be dunked in coffee the next morning. Working family members carried chunks of it to their jobs, along with peppers purchased from the numerous street vendors found in Italian neighborhoods or from neighborhood stores, which sold familiar Italian ingredients.
Phyllis Williams noted that one of the reasons Italians shunned the recipes taught in settlement cooking classes was that “Italians thought many of the dishes prepared were too expensive and would not satisfy hungry children.” In hot summer months, when putting on the stove would be unbearable in cramped tenement apartments, Rose Tellerino, born in 1899, remembered salads were the daily fare while macaroni was “all we ate” in the wintertime. Wine, usually made at home, continued to be drunk at meals and milk and water were not, much to the chagrin of the Hull House reformers.
The Italian communities of Chicago were enriched by a phenomenon all too rare in their towns of origin, voluntary associations. By the 1920’s the Italians in Chicago had church and school-oriented clubs and sodalities that worked at fundraising, as well as special-interest organizations, sponsored by the settlement houses. The Holy Guardian Angel and Our Lady of Pompeii served the Italian community. On the near Northwest Side, a varied community of Baresi, Sicilians and others grew up around the Santa Maria Addolorata Church. Perhaps the most colorful Italian sector was in the 22nd Ward on the city’s Near North Side. It was known as, “Little Sicily”, and this neighborhood was home to some 20,000 by 1920.
World War II changed everything for Italian Americans. It Americanized the second generation. The G.I. Bill opened up the first possibilities for a college education and the first opportunities to buy a new suburban house. Other government policies, such as urban renewal, public housing and the building of the interstate highway system combined to destroy their inner-city neighborhoods. First, was the building of the Cabrini-Green Housing Project, which destroyed the Sicilian neighborhoods in the Near North Side in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Then, came the construction of the expressway system on the near south, west and northwest sides which dislodged additional Italian families and institutions including many churches and schools.
Today, some 500,000 Italian-Americans, about the population of a medium-sized Italian city, live in Chicago. Though the group has been in the city for about a century, it maintains a lively array of civic, religious and cultural institutions and organizations that provide a sense of ethnic identification and recognition in a manageable area inside the larger metropolis. Because these institutions perform the functions of allocating recognition and ethnic identity, they will not die or fade quickly from the scene.
Source: University of Illinois at Chicago and Jane Addams Memorial Collection
Taylor Street, in the Near West Side, became the hub of the Italian community, most notably, because of Jane Addams’ Hull House that was established to educate and help assimilate European immigrants and because of Mother Frances Cabrini, who started a school and founded two hospitals in the Italian community. Although parts of the Italian neighborhood were torn down when road construction and the University of Illinois at Chicago were completed in the 1960’s, numerous Italian and Italian American clubs and organizations helped maintain a strong sense of community.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, established in 1910 and the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame added more culture and heritage to the area. Major events include an Italian Street Festival in June and Taylor Street Festa Italiana in August. Italian food and regional specialties from the area’s restaurants, entertainment, merchandise from Italy and children’s activities are part of both celebrations. Festa di Tutti I Santi, a fundraiser for The Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, is held in August.
Taylor Street is the main dining area in Chicago’s Little Italy, anchored with favorites like Pompei (1531 W. Taylor St.), opened by Sicilian, Luigi Davino, in 1909, Pompei has remained a family run business ever since, but don’t expect to find deep dish here: the pizza is still Sicilian style.
For a neighborhood specialty, stop at Al’s Beef (1070 W Taylor St.); Chicago’s well-known Italian beef sandwich was created here in 1938 and has grown from a humble depression era street food to a legendary Italian staple. Order yours with Italian sauce and eat it standing wide-legged and leaning over the counter.
There are many neighborhood grocers, but Conte Di Savoia (2227 W. Taylor St.) has been the neighborhood specialty market since 1948 and continues to serve the area.
Opened in 1908, Salvatore Ferrara’s Italian pastry legacy lives on today at Ferrara Bakery (2210 W Taylor St.), where the baked goods have been pretty well perfected over its century-plus existence. When Ferrara Bakery opened its doors over a hundred years, it was a staple in the Italian community of Chicago. Backed by a strong immigrant work ethic and an American public infatuated with pastries and confectionaries, Salvatore Ferrara opened a pastry shop on Taylor and Halsted Streets, with a candy shop located roughly a mile away on Taylor Street and Ogden Avenue. While the candy aspect of Ferrara’s business has boomed, distributing worldwide, the pastry shop maintains a more modest reputation. Forced to relocate due to the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Original Ferrara Pastries resides in the old candy distributing facility at Taylor and Ogden.
The Food of Chicago’s Little Italy
If you’re craving deep dish, head about 15 minutes north of Sicilian Little Italy and pay a visit to Uno Pizzeria (29 E Ohio St.), home of the famous Chicago style pie.
Chicago pizza is a not your typical pizza. When Pizzeria Uno founders, Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo, invented it in 1943, they weren’t trying for true Italian. They believed Chicagoans needed something more substantial: deep dish pizza, which is more a casserole than a flatbread. It grew so popular that they opened a second location, Pizzeria Due, across the street in 1955.
The deep-dish pie spread throughout Chicago due to several pizza makers who left Uno. The first was Uno’s primary pizza chef, Alice Mae Redmond. It is said that Alice Mae was the one who developed Uno’s dough recipe. She left in the sixties, formed a partnership with three local businessmen, including cab drivers Fred Bartoli and Sam Levine, and opened Gino’s East. Gino’s has been through several changes in ownership, but still uses the same recipe at its thirteen locations.
Chicago’s Italian beef is a sandwich of thin slices of seasoned roast beef, dripping with meat juices, on a dense, long Italian-style roll, believed to have originated in Chicago, where its history dates back at least to the 1930’s. The bread itself is often dipped (or double-dipped) into the juices the meat is cooked in and the sandwich is typically topped off with Chicago-style hot giardiniera or sautéed green Italian sweet peppers. I posted a recipe for the Chicago Italian beef sandwich last July. You can see the recipe at http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2012/07/10/in-the-mood-for-a-really-great-italian-sandwich/
The Chicago style dog is a steamed poppy-seed bun with a Vienna beef hot dog hidden under relish, yellow mustard, onions, tomato, celery salt, hot peppers and a pickle spear.
UNO’S FAMOUS DEEP-DISH PIZZA
Recipe shared by Uno in celebration of the 65th anniversary of Uno’s Chicago-Style Pizza.
MASTER DOUGH RECIPE
Yield: one 20-ounce ball of dough to make one 12-inch Chicago-Style Deep-Dish Pizza
- 1 package active dry yeast
- 3/4 cup warm water (105-110 degrees F)
- 1 teaspoon. sugar
- 1/4 cup corn oil
- 2½ cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 12″ Deep-Dish Pizza Pan or Cake Pan
In a mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast with water and sugar. Add the corn oil and blend. Add the flour and salt and mix thoroughly. If using a stand mixer, mix for 4 minutes at medium speed, until the dough is smooth and pliable. If kneading by hand, knead for 7 to 8 minutes. Turn the dough out of the bowl and knead by hand for two additional minutes. Add olive oil to a deep bowl. Place the dough ball into the bowl and turn it twice to coat it with the oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel.* Let the dough rise for two hours. Do not punch it down. Spread and push the dough ball across the bottom of the deep dish pan and up the sides.
*At this stage, the dough can be put in the refrigerator and allowed to rise slowly overnight. Take the dough out of the refrigerator at least an hour before you are ready to assemble the pizza.
PEPPERONI DEEP-DISH PIZZA
- 1½ cups tomatoes, ground
- 1 teaspoon oregano, dried
- 1 teaspoon basil, dried
- 2 tablespoons Romano cheese, grated
- 5 oz. part-skim, low-moisture mozzarella, sliced
- 5 oz. provolone, sliced
- 24 ea. pepperoni slices (about 2 oz.)
In a mixing bowl, combine the tomatoes, oregano, basil and Romano cheese. Set aside.
Lay the slices of mozzarella and provolone on top of the dough, overlapping the slices to cover all of the dough.
Spread the tomato mixture evenly over the cheese.
Dot the top of the tomatoes with the pepperoni.
Bake on the middle rack of a preheated 475° F. oven for 20-25 minutes until the crust is golden brown and pulls away from the sides of the pan.
Allow the pizza to rest for 3-4 minutes before cutting and serving.
Eggplant Ravioli is a specialty of Francesca’s On Taylor. Here is a similar recipe you can make at home. Francesca’s on Taylor features the earthy cuisine of Rome and the surrounding areas of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio. Chicago Magazine notes, “It brings a new kind of abbondanza to an old Italian neighborhood.”
(Makes about 1 pound)
- 2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 eggs
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 to 3 tablespoon lukewarm water
Put the flour, eggs, salt and olive oil in a food processor.
Pulse several times to blend the ingredients.
Add the water, 1 tablespoon at a time, just until dough starts to come together.
Avoid adding too much water or the dough will be too sticky to roll.
It may still look dry but can be gathered into a ball.
Gather the dough into a ball and place on a floured surface.
Knead lightly, just until the dough is smooth.
Divide in half and keep one-half covered while you work with the other.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 small eggplant, diced
- 2 teaspoons dried basil or oregano
- 1/2 cup ricotta cheese
- 3 tablespoons Asiago cheese, grated
- 1 egg yolk
- Salt and pepper
Saute garlic in olive oil over low heat about 2 minutes.
Add eggplant and dried herbs, cover and cook 10 minutes.
Remove from heat, cool, and pulse in food processor to finely chop.
Add remaining ingredients and fill ravioli.
Forming the Ravioli
Roll out the dough to 1/8-inch thickness into strips about 4 inches wide.
Using a tablespoon, place mounds of filling 1-1/2 to 2-inches apart down the center of the dough.
Brush a little water across the top and bottom of the strip and between the mounds of filling.
Place another 4-inch wide strip of dough over the top.
Press the dough down around the mounds of filling to seal.
Cut the ravioli into rounds or squares using a ravioli cutter, pastry cutter or a knife.
Completed ravioli can be refrigerated for a few hours before cooking.
They can also be frozen by placing them on a cookie sheet and freezing until firm and then storing in a plastic bag for 2-3 months.
Cook ravioli in salted water until they rise to the top, 3-4 minutes for fresh ravioli or 9-10 minutes for frozen.
Serve with Marinara Sauce.
Maggiano’s Baked Ziti and Sausage Casserole
Maggiano’s Little Italy is an American casual dining restaurant specializing in Italian-American cuisine that is aimed at “re-creating the classic pre-World War II dinner house featuring family size portions”.
- 2 1/2 cups uncooked ziti pasta
- 3 tablespoons oil
- 1 lb Italian sausages (casings removed)
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons fresh minced garlic
- 1 pinch cayenne pepper
- 1/4 cup flour
- Black pepper
- 2 cups half-and-half
- 1/3 cup parmesan cheese
- 1 (1 lb) carton cream-style cottage cheese
- 1/4 cup parmesan cheese
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
- Salt and pepper
- 1/4 lb mozzarella cheese, grated
Set oven to 350 degrees. F. and grease a 3-quart baking dish.
Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling water until JUST tender (do not overcook the pasta as it will cook more in the oven). Place the cooked pasta in a large bowl.
Heat oil in a skillet; add in the sausage meat and cook until browned, remove to a plate.
For the white sauce; melt butter in a medium saucepan; add the onion, garlic and cayenne pepper if using) saute for about 3-4 minutes. Add in flour and whisk for 1 minute. Slowly add in half and half cream; bring to a simmer, whisking constantly until thickened.
Remove from heat; add in 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the cheese sauce over the cooked pasta in the bowl; mix with a wooden spoon.
In a medium bowl mix together the cottage cheese with 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, egg and chopped parsley, then season with salt and lots of pepper.
Spoon HALF of the creamed ziti mixture into the prepared baking dish, then spread the cottage cheese mixture on top, then spoon the remaining pasta mixture on top of the cottage cheese mixture.
Sprinkle the cooked sausage meat on the top.
Top with mozzarella cheese, then sprinkle paprika on top.
Bake uncovered for about 30-35 minutes or until bubbly and hot.
Let stand about 5 or more minutes before serving.
Similar to the Ferrara Bakery’s Famous Cake
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
9 inch ungreased springform pan
For the Pan di Spagna (sponge cake): Have the following ingredients at room temperature at least 1 hour before baking: 6 eggs, lemon juice, orange zest and sherry.
FOR THE SPONGE
- 6 whole eggs, separated and at room temperature
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, at room temperature
- 1 1/2 tablespoons orange zest, at room temperature
- 2 tablespoons sherry
- 1 cup cake flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup rum, for sprinkling the cake layers
FOR THE FILLING
- 1 1/2 lbs. ricotta cheese
- 6 tablespoons rum
- 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
- 2 (1 oz) squares unsweetened chocolate, grated
- 1/4 cup candied cherries, chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
TO MAKE FROSTING:
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter room temperature
- 2 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar
- 2 egg whites, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 1/2 cup toasted finely chopped almonds
TO MAKE SPONGE LAYER
Separate the 6 eggs and set the egg whites aside.
Beat egg yolks until thick and lemon-colored. Beat in sugar, lemon juice, orange zest and sherry.
Beat until foamy.
Sift flour 3 times and fold into the egg yolk mixture gently but thoroughly.
Beat egg whites until foamy, add salt and beat until stiff but not dry.
Fold into yolk mixture.
Pour batter into a 9 inch ungreased springform pan and bake for 50-60 minutes.
TEST by pressing lightly with your fingertips, if the cake springs back at once, it is done.
Leave the cake in the pan to cool and invert on a wire rack.
Once the cake is completely cool, slice it into 3 layers.
Sprinkle layers with the 1/4 cup rum.
TO MAKE THE FILLING:
Crush ricotta very finely with a potato masher.
Add 1/2 cup of confectioner’s sugar and beat until creamy, about 3 minutes.
Stir in the 6 tablespoons rum, grated chocolate, chopped cherries and cinnamon.
Spread the ricotta filling over the sponge cake layers, using a 1/2 inch of filling on each layer.
Leave the top and sides of the cake plain.
TO MAKE FROSTING:
Cream butter with 1 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar.
Beat the 2 egg whites until stiff and gradually beat the remaining 1 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar into the egg whites.
Fold egg whites into the butter mixture and fold in 1 teaspoon almond extract.
Cover the sides and top of the cake with this frosting. Sprinkle nuts on the top and sides of the cake.
Store in the refrigerator until ready to serve it.
- Cleveland’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- New England’s “Little Italies” (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Philadelphia’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Western Pennsylvania’s “Little Italies” (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Italian American Neighborhoods – Boston (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Ybor City – Florida’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Baltimore’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Little Italy – Manhattan (jovinacooksitalian.com)
May 3, 2013 at 7:32 am
Thank you so much for this wonderful Post. I grew up on Taylor Street and remember
like it was yesterday such warm wonderful memories. Everyone knew everyone and the
neighborhood was your family. And even though we live in the western suburbs now till this day I still attend Our Lady of Pompeii for holidays and festivals.
Thank you so much, warmly, Carol LaBanco Szafalowicz
May 3, 2013 at 7:58 am
Thank you for sharing your memories. It is great to hear from folks who lived in the Little Italies of America.
Our Growing Paynes
May 3, 2013 at 1:49 pm
Again love the history! Interesting you highlighted Uno’s. I think the further it gets from Chicago the less it does well. The one in our town shut down. In a college town that loves pizza. Cool you found the recipe though.
May 3, 2013 at 2:11 pm
Thanks so much for your comments. Lots of eateries that lasted years in the Little Italy neighborhoods did not make it into the 21st century. People move away and tastes change. However, I love the history of it all.
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February 20, 2016 at 3:02 am
For the Cannoli Cake, the 6 eggs got left off of the ingredient list for the sponge cake! With the additional 2 eggs for the frosting, this calls recipe for 8 eggs, correct?
February 20, 2016 at 8:16 am
Velvet, thank you for writing me. I sure missed that error. Yes the recipe calls for 6 whole eggs separated for the sponge layer and 2 egg whites for the frosting. I have fixed it in the recipe.
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February 11, 2018 at 7:23 am
When I was a kid growing up in Chicago, I had a friend whose parents and grandmother emigrated from Italy. I will never forget how his grandmother shoved spoonfuls of the most heavenly sauces into our eager faces each time we got close enough. Food was indeed love to them. So to me, Italian food from Chicago is more than something I miss about my home town; it made food emotional and artistic for me. I cook, therefore, I love!! Thank you Nana De Vanzo, and thank you, Jovian for this walk down memory lane. This was a wonderful read for me!
February 11, 2018 at 8:36 am
Thank you so much Audrey for sharing your memories. And, wonderful memories they are.
April 13, 2018 at 4:53 pm
I’am so proud to have come from an Italian family, from Melrose Park, IL( called PEPPER PATCH), Giovanni Pizzoferrato, Houston, Texas
April 13, 2018 at 5:39 pm
Thank you for sharing.
July 8, 2020 at 10:24 pm
This article brought back so many things that I loved as a child I remember the stores that you mentioned it was
The best part of
My childhood walking in the neighborhood and everyone new you and
You them never being afraid thank you for a great tour
July 9, 2020 at 10:41 am
Thank you for taking time to comment. Much appreciated.