Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town!)

If you’re a Tony Bennett fan, you get the reference. If not, no matter; read on.

My wife and I love Chicago. I was born there, visited many summers during my youth, and have been back numerous times, both for business and pleasure.

During my recently completed 109-day deployment, I drew an assignment in the Chicago area. A colleague and I connected on a Saturday morning, and I was delighted to give him a brief tour of my Chicago.

The iconic Marina Towers

We drove to The Loop, along Lower Wacker Drive (as seen in the movies The French Connection and The Blues Brothers), past The Billy Goat Tavern (the inspiration for the Saturday Night Live “Cheeborger, Cheeborger” routine), past the Marina Towers, up Michigan Avenue to the Water Tower (the only structure north of the Chicago River to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871), to Wrigley Field, past a couple of my boyhood homes, and on to the home and first studio of acclaimed architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park.


Along the way, I pointed out some of the restaurants we’ve enjoyed, such as Hugo’s Frog Bar and Carmine’s Italian Restaurant (both on Rush St.), and shared my opinion that Pizzeria Uno and Pizzeria Due, purveyors of “Original Chicago-Style Pizza,” were basically tourist traps and that better examples of that fare could be had elsewhere, with less fuss and bother.

On Monday, we reported to our post of duty at the south end of the Chicago area: in the Village of Steger. The town was founded by piano maker John Steger so that he could establish a piano factory at that location. Steger & Sons was known for building very good pianos, and the firm prospered for several decades.

Although a “southern suburb,” Steger should not be slapped with the stigma associated with “South Chicago”; it’s a working-class town to be sure, but very pleasant with tree-lined streets, sidewalks, locally owned shops, stores and restaurants as well as a few chain outlets. And a branch of the famous Chicago dog purveyor Portillo’s was just a few miles up the road.

Portillo's famous Chicago Dog

A nice place to live, nothing really special to visit.

Matteson, where we were quartered about six miles away, showed more signs of the changing urban landscape. The shuttered Lincoln Mall used to house a thriving branch of the upmarket Carson Pirie Scott department store chain, which closed its doors in 2018 after more than 160 years in operation. The stores in Matteson Center, another nearby mall, stood in testimony to the area’s current character. That one mall houses Ross Dress for Less, Burlington, Marshall’s and Dollar Tree. The higher-end stores like Carson's have gone by the wayside.

One local restaurant nearby that stood out was Giordano’s Italian Restaurant. One of a local chain offering Chicago-style pizza (didn’t EVERY Italian restaurant in town?), they also had a variety of other dishes, including a meatball sub with side salad, which was billed as one of their “lighter” offerings. Decide for yourself.

Meatball sandwich with a side salad at Giordano's

To the west, Frankfort had a bit more to offer in terms of things to do and places to dine. One of my favorite restaurants was the Dancing Marlin. It offered some 18 wines on tap, along with a selection of seafood, beef, chicken and vegetarian items. Service was very good and, though it seemed to be a place locals go regularly, outsiders like me were welcomed warmly, both by staff (as it should be) and other patrons.

Wine by the glass at the Dancing Marlin

The Indiana border was just a few miles to the east, and that area also offered some attractions worth investigating.

The boyhood home of Michael Jackson is in Gary, Indiana. The simple, fenced-in ranch house sits at 2300 Jackson St. and is one of the few well-maintained homes in a declining area. A large marble monument that used to occupy a spot in the front yard has been removed, and the place is now home to another family.

About 15 miles away is the steel mill town of Whiting, Indiana. Situated on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan, the city is home to an annual Pierogi Fest which will be held from July 24-26, 2020.

If you don’t want to wait that long for your fix of Polish food, head to Big Frank’s Sausage at 918 Carrol St. in East Chicago, Indiana. Put it in your GPS because you’d never stop in just from driving by. It looks like a slightly run-down neighborhood bar more than a restaurant, but the Polish food is righteous!

Polish sampler at Big Frank's

I ordered the Polish sampler plate with pierogi, a potato pancake, a spoonful of kapusta (braised cabbage similar to sauerkraut), and two huge gołąbki (cabbage rolls) very much like my mother used to make. They also had the popular Polish beer Okocim on tap as well as the hard-to-find Polish rye-based vodka Wyborowa.

The bartender was very welcoming, as were the owner and the few locals who were still lingering after a late lunch. Had I been staying closer, I might have become a semi-regular myself.

In sum, there’s a lot to see and do in the Chicago area. Just be prepared to drive, as it’s spread out far and wide.

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Photos by Carl Dombek unless otherwise noted
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