When you think of Chicago's Little Italy, it's hard not to think about food. Italian food to be exact. And, that's for good reason as Italian restaurants abound - up and down Taylor Street from Morgan St. to the east and Ashland Ave. to the west. But, while it's always best to arrive in Little Italy with an empty stomach, there's more to do than just eat your way up and down it many blocks. There's even a few options to work off some calories and bide your time until it's time for your next meal, too.
It's safe to say that Chicago's Little Italy is a crowd pleaser - for all ages. For families, it is sure to be a culinary and entertainment home run with lots of pasta options for mealtime and delicious Italian ice to top off a great day. And, at less than a mile long, your kids won't get worn out from exploring the vibrant neighborhood.
Here are my top suggestions for where to eat, shop, visit and play in Chicago's Little Italy neighborhood:
1. Eat Brunch: Sweet Maple Cafe (1339 W. Taylor St.) and Stax Cafe (1401 W. Taylor St.)
While I know most people go to Little Italy to eat Italian food, for some reason, my family tends to go there for brunch. And, we are thrilled with the two excellent brunch options right in the heart of the Italian neighborhood.
Sweet Maple Cafe: Sweet Maple Cafe is a homey storefront restaurant that serves up delicious, feel-good food for breakfast and lunch. It's always warm and inviting, beckoning you in to leave your worries and cares out on the sidewalk and succumb to good, old comfort food.
It's a great place to meet friends and family for brunch. Just be prepared to have to wait a bit for a table. That's no problem at all in the summer when you can grab a seat on one of the plastic chairs that line the sidewalk. But, of course, in the winter that's not as ideal, and people often crowd the limited waiting area (or more of a vestibule) in the front of the restaurant. Either way, it's worth the wait to dine at Sweet Maple Cafe.
Stax Cafe: My family and I tend to be creatures of habit, frequenting the same restaurants and enjoying the same dishes time after time. One Sunday morning, we boldly decided to try a new Little Italy brunch spot - Stax Cafe.
Stax Cafe is a big, bright restaurant that offers up a wide variety of innovative and delicious breakfast and lunch items. My sons were won over by the restaurant's chocolate chip peanut butter with banana pancakes - and ate them in record time. Next time, I think they'll have to go for the equally decadent chocolate chip bacon pancakes!
2) Eat Italian: Tufano's Vernon Park Tap (1073 W. Vernon Park Place)
Thanks to the influence of my parents, when I think of Italian food in Little Italy, I think of Tufano's Vernon Park Tap. The restaurant is tucked into a side street just off of Racine Ave., making it a true find.
Chalkboard menus line the restaurant's walls, offering diners a chance to peruse the menu - all night long. My parents always insist that you need to have the Tufano's lemon chicken with potatoes, and would agree that you can't go wrong with anything else on the menu.
Be prepared to leave happy and full. Just make sure you have cash or a check - Tufano's doesn't take credit cards.
3) Get a Treat: Mario's Italian Lemonade (1068 W. Taylor St.)
In addition to always steering us to Tufano's in Little Italy, when my siblings and I were (much) younger, my parents always took us to Mario's Italian Lemonade. The brightly painted, walk-up Italian lemonade storefront offers a wide range of mostly fruit-based flavors - with something to please everyone. It's such a great spot that it made my list of the top places to get global sweet treats (or ice cream) in Chicago.
The lemon flavor has to be the hands-down crowd favorite. But, no matter which flavor you choose, you just can't go wrong. Each fruity flavor is chock full of real frozen fruit pieces, helping to add extra flavor and coldness to your hot summer day. On a recent summertime trip there, my kids shrieked with delight whenever they found a frozen piece of lemon on their cups - and someone how seemed to eat all of mine too!
4) Shop: Market Fresh Books (1076 W. Taylor St.) and First Aid Comics (1142 W. Taylor St.)
One of my weakness is books, and I just can't seem to say "no" to my kids whenever they ask to go into a book store and see if they can stumble upon one of their new or old favorite books.
Lucky for us, there is a big used bookstore chock full of my sons' favorite reading material - any of the seven Harry Potter books. It's called Market Fresh Books, and it's got a fresh concept for sure. Market Fresh Books sells books by the pound. You can pile up all the books you want onto a scale and only pay $4.99 per pound, offering you the chance to get your favorite tomes at a very good price.
Just down the street is another one of my sons' favorite kind of stores - a comic book purveyor. At First Aid Comics, you can find all of the most popular and obsure comic book titles. When we stopped in the other weekend, the store was packed with lots of guys intently playing a card game I was not familiar with at all. But, it didn't stop all of us from carefully stepping around them to check out the bargain comic book bins in the back of the store and then make our way up to the cash register up at the front.
5) Visit: National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame (1431 W. Taylor St.)
It's hard to miss the stark new building with gleaming windows that houses the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame - especially with a clear view of race cars in its second-story windows. It seems to stand proud at its place it Little Italy, beckoning passerbys to come in and find out more. And, that's exactly what my family did on one of our recent trips to the neighborhood.
The National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame was founded in 1977 to honor all Italian American athletes. It was originally located in suburban Elmhurst and later moved to Arlington Heights. In 2000, it moved again, settling into its new and current home in Chicago's Little Italy. Today it boasts a massive collection of sports memorabilia, which includes Mario Andretti's Indy 500 race car, Vince Lombardi's last coat worn as coach of the Green Bay Packers, and swimmer Matt Biondi's Olympic Gold Medals.
The Hall of Fame is open to the public Monday through Sunday from 12 - 4 p.m. Inside you can tour several exhibits, including Tommy and Jo Lasorda Exhibit Gallery which pays tribute to its Hall of Fame inductees and features exclusive memorabilia of Italian heroes such as Vince Lombardi, Rocky Marciano, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Joe Montana, Dan Marino and Mary Lou Retton.
Be sure to also check out Piazza DiMaggio, direclty across the street from the Hall of Fame. The centerpiece of the piazza is a sculpture of Joe DiMaggio. It also offers ample, shaded seating if you need to take a break from your tour of the Little Italy neighborhood.
6) Play: Bocce Ball Courts (Across from Conte di Savoia at 1438 W. Taylor St.)
On a recent visit to Little Italy, my family was thrilled to stumble upon two bocce courts nestled in between a series of storefronts and an apartment buildings. Our only regret is that we didn't have our trusty set of bocce balls with us. Otherwise, we would have postponed our brunch plans to get in a few games.
The two bocce courts are open to the public, awaiting players at any time of the day. Its location on Taylor Street just asks for you to spend some time working up an appetite and then quenching your thirst and hunger at a neighborhood establishment, including Conte di Savoia, an Italian deli conveniently located across the street.
Traveling to Chicago's Little Italy
You can head by car, bus or "L" to Chicago's Little Italy, which is easily accessible from the 290/Eisenhower and 94/Kennedy Expressways or Roosevelt Road, Racine Ave. and Ashland Ave.
We usually drive there and have always found there to be ample street parking - of course you might have to feed the meter (be sure check to see if they now offer free metered parking on Sundays).
The neighborhood is also easy to access via public transportation. You can take the CTA's Blue Line and get off at the nearby UIC/Halsted stop (several blocks away). The CTA's No. 9 Ashland bus will get you even closer.
What are your favorite places to eat, shop, visit and play in Chicago's Little Italy? Please share your thoughts and tips in the comments below.
If you like this story, you also should check out my family-friendly visit guides for other Chicago ethnic neighborhoods: