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An Overview of Chicago’s Little Italy

By Jamie Gentges

Have you ever thought about how far your food has come from? In order to truly appreciate Italian cuisine, its roots need to be taken into account. This can be done easily with a short trip on the CTA red line. Right here in Chicago resides its own Little Italy, stretching from North Eisenhower Expressway to East Kennedy Expressway and South Roosevelt Road to West Polk Street.

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History
This culturally rich area began developing in the 1850s as Italians started migrating to the United States, according to a Little Italy travel documentary. By 1900 about 16,000 Italians had settled in Chicago. While not all Italians fled to the current Little Italy region of Chicago, many planted their roots there. Around 1930 over 74,000 Italians had migrated and settled in Chicago and 300 restaurants and 200 bakeries had been established in Little Italy.
Many of the Italian immigrants worked as unskilled, industrial laborers, working long hours for little pay. However, others owned restaurants or shops, resulting in the birth of this Italian commerce and cuisine in Chicago. Italian immigration to Little Italy began decreasing in 1963 with the establishment of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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An Immigrant’s Legacy
 Luigi and Carmella Scafuri immigrated to America from Calabria, Italy in 1901, bringing their family and baking skills with them, according to Scafuri.  Luigi opened Scafuri bakery in 1904, building community in today’s Little Italy neighborhood by baking the neighborhood’s bread. The bakery continued to be passed down the family from 1955 until 2007, when Scafuri closed. However, three years later Scafuri family member Michelle DiGiovanni-Harold and her niece Kelly Lynch reopened the bakery.
 Pictured: Owner and Pastry Chef Kelly Lynch. Photo courtesy of Scafuri Bakery.

Pictured: Owner and Pastry Chef Kelly Lynch. Photo courtesy of Scafuri Bakery.

“When Michelle came to me asking if I wanted to run the bakery, I immediately felt like I could do something meaningful,” Lynch told Carmel Catholic High School’s community magazine, Compass. After graduating Northwestern University in 2010, Lynch spent a summer working in an Italian bakery, then attended Kendall College in Chicago participating in a baking and pastry program, to prepare for the reopening of Scafuri, according to Compass.
 Pictured: Scafuri Bakery. Photo courtesy of Google Images. 

Pictured: Scafuri Bakery. Photo courtesy of Google Images.

Ever since, Scafuri Bakery uses new recipes along with old Italian recipes and serves cakes, pastries and coffee. “I never would have imagined doing this, but now that I am I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Lynch told Compass. From 1901 to 2016, Scafuri has made an impression on Chicago’s Little Italy. The bakery also participates as a vendor in Chicago’s Donut Fest, is part of the Little Italy Food Tour and was featured on NBC Chicago’s list of “Where to Eat Pie on Pi Day” list.
Pictured: View of Willis Tower from outside the storefront and a Scafuri Bakery coffee. Photo by Jamie Gentges.

Pictured: View of Willis Tower from outside the storefront and a Scafuri Bakery coffee. Photo by Jamie Gentges.

Little Italy Today
Today organizations and events in Little Italy cater to its Italian Culture. Taylor Street Archives works to preserve the original Italian immigrants who occupied Little Italy and document their stories, photos and memories online. The Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans helps set up relief funds for victims and rescue efforts of Italy. Once a year Little Italy hosts the Taylor Street Festa Italiana, a four day festival celebrating all things Italian with activities, music and food.
Pictured: Taylor Street Festa Italiana. Photo courtesy of Google Images.

Pictured: Taylor Street Festa Italiana. Photo courtesy of Google Images.

 

However, some people like Bill Dal Cerro, a fourth-generation Italian Chicago Native, don’t think these efforts are enough to preserve Italian culture. In his sit-down with Chicago Sun-Times Dal Cerro said, “Chicago’s Little Italy is not as developed as, say, Boston, which has a huge Little Italy still. San Francisco too. Even though that’s great, they’re still kind of losing the flavor, so to speak, because a lot of the residents there have died off or their children have gone off and moved to the suburbs,” regarding the dying off of Little Italy’s Italian roots.
Dal Cerro also told  Chicago Sun-Times that an Italian bocce club in Lakeview was torn down and build into condos and that a common perception of Italians includes food. To this he told the Sun-Times, “It’s like saying African-Americans know how to sing and dance. They’re gifted musically. Italians are gifted in terms of culinary skills. But you can go beyond that…We’re just trying to expand the notion of what Italian-American is.”
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The Hub Bub is a collection of articles, videos, audio, photo slideshows, interactive maps and other media produced by students enrolled in journalism courses at Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication. For more about the School of Communication, our award winning faculty, and our state of the art facilities located in the heart of Chicago, visit our website.