Chicago's Historic Maxwell Street Market: Street Food, Events & More

Chicago's Historic Maxwell Street Market: Street Food, Events & More
Maxwell Street Market now. Photo: Courtesy of Choose Chicago

Forget the Bean, the Pier, Sear’s Tower, and the Randolph St. Market.  It’s time to get down and dirty with a taste of the real Chicago at the Maxwell Street Market.

The Maxwell Street Market’s storied past dates back nearly 100 years to 1917 when immigrants arriving from various countries set up shop on Maxwell Street via open-air pushcarts to sell anything from shoelaces and carpets to live chickens and even stolen goods.

The original Maxwell Street was filled with a cast of colorful characters. Old-timers may remember the “Chicken Man,” Anderson Punch, who roamed the street with his pet rooster atop his head when the rooster wasn’t performing his money-making act.

Maxwellst1926

The carts and stalls were ready for a brisk day of business on Maxwell Street in March 1926. Tribune archive photo

Early comers to the market were Germans, Irish, Poles, Bohemians, and Jews.

Many of these early comers, people like Arthur Goldberg, a former U.S. Supreme Court justice; William Paley, founder and CEO of CBS (who was born in the back of his father’s cigar store near Maxwell Street); Benny Goodman who became a famous bandleader; U.S. Adm. Hyman Rickover, the father of the atomic submarine and pro boxer, Barney Ross whose father ran a small vegetable shop on Maxwell Street rose from their Maxwell Street roots to fame and fortune.

In the 1940s, many Southern blacks came to the street where they worked and entertained the masses with their Delta-style blues. Bluesmen Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Honeyboy Edwards and Big Bill Broonzy all got their start on Maxwell Street.

Later, Mexicans, Koreans, and Gypsies joined the mix bringing fake gold jewelry and children selling beer from coolers to the street.

Next came crime, overcrowding and the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) leading to some restructuring and down time for the market.

The first location for the market was on Maxwell Street and Halsted Street.  The market has relocated three times since then with the current market holding court on the 800 block of South Des Plaines Street.

Today’s Maxwell Street Market is a little tamer and a little smaller than the original market but still serves as a melting pot with an international flair, attracting a cross-section the population.

The market, open now only on Sundays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. is still the place to go to mingle and laze away the day. Get there early for the best bargains and never go with the first price. Haggling is all part of the fun.

You never know what you’ll find. One person’s junk is another person’s treasure. Typical items include: tools, household goods, jewelery, clothing, furniture and for some reason an endless selection of socks.  There’s tons of toys, tires and even kitchen appliances. The produce is cheaper than you’ll find at the grocery store or the farmer’s markets–especially for avocados, cilantro, and tomatillos. You can also stock up on toothpaste and soap.

You’ll definitely want to plan on eating there.

In addition to the bargains, the market offers an international buffet of street food at ridiculously low prices. You’ll find not only good deals, but great food, mostly made from scratch.

The market is the perfect place to sample foods you may never have tried such as lamb stomach sausage or Salvadoran papusas. Of course, the handmade tortillas and churros are hard to beat. A favorite and longtime vendor at the market is Rubi’s Tacos–check them out in this video.

The market, open year round, heats up along with the summer season offering a festival-like atmosphere complete with a line-up of FREE special events.

Starting Mother’s Day, May 10th, the Maxwell Street Market kicks off summer with live Mariachi/Banda band musicians and performers, DJs and children activities.

Highlights for the summer include the Chicago Blues Festival Preview followed by a preview of the Chicago Gospel Music Festival on Sunday, May 17.  The blues preview kicks off at noon with the Eric Noden Band featuring Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith and E.G. McDaniel. The Chicago Gospel Music Festival Preview features performances starting at 1 p.m. by EJ Jackson and Dexter Walker & Zion Movement.

On Sunday, June 21, The market will hold the “World’s Largest Father’s Day Garage Sale” where you can buy or sell goods. Those interested in selling should contact the Maxwell Street Market at (312) 745 7038 no later than June 12.  There will be a limited number of 10 ft. x 10 ft. spaces available where you can set up shop for only $20.

Following is the complete schedule of summer events.

Sunday, May 10, 7 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Maxwell Street Market Summer Season Kickoff
Mariachi/Banda band musicians and performers, DJs and children activities

Sunday, May 17, noon – 1 p.m.
Chicago Blues Festival Preview
A performance by Eric Noden Band featuring Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith and E.G. McDaniel as a preview of the 32nd Annual Chicago Blues Festival in Grant Park, June 12-14

Sunday, May 17, 1 p.m.
Chicago Gospel Music Festival Preview
Featuring performances by EJ Jackson and Dexter Walker & Zion Movement as a preview of the 30th Chicago Gospel Music Festival in Millennium Park, May 29-31

Sunday, May 31, noon
DJ Emanuel Pippin

Sunday, June 7, 11 a.m.
Lori Lewis and The Maxwell Street Blues Band

Sunday, June 14, noon
DJ Milk featuring Gene Hunt

Sunday, June 21, 7 a.m. – 3 p.m.
“World’s Largest Father’s Day Garage Sale”
Offering Chicagoans a chance to buy—and sell—gently used clothing, household items, furniture and more; featuring Maxwell Street House Band at noon.

Sunday, June 28, noon
DJ Mark Fuller Flava

Sunday, July 5, noon
Maxwell Street House Band

Sunday, July 12, noon
DJ Ron Troup

Sunday, July 19, 11 a.m.
The Maxwell Street Blues Band

Sunday, July 26, noon
Get Fit with Monique Bailey and DJ Jay Imani

Sunday, August 2, noon
Simone Green & The Treatment Band

Sunday, August 9, noon
Thomas Sisters Line Dancing Demonstration

Sunday, August 16, noon
DJ Craig Elliot & The Spin Doctors

Sunday, August 23, noon
Maxwell Street House Band

Sunday, August 30, noon
DJ Czarina

A trip to the Maxwell Street Market should be a must for anyone who loves Chicago–it truly is part of the fabric of our great city. Anyone who has stories or memories about the Maxwell Street Market–would love it, if you share them–as a few readers have already done.

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