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Ignotz’s is among the ristoranti of Oakley Avenue between 24th and 25th streets.

Go Lueste!

by Matt Lee | Men's Book Chicago magazine | September 13, 2012

Ask many Chicagoans if they’ve ever been to Heart of Italy and you’re likely to get a quizzical look and asked, “You mean Taylor Street?”

“No, no, no,” you begin to explain…

Truthfully, they can’t be blamed too much. The “Heart of Italy” tag sometimes applied to the tiny strip of ristoranti on Oakley Avenue between 24th and 25th streets has always been met with a rather lukewarm response from the people in the neighborhood. Another stab, “Heart of Chicago,” has gone over a little better, as the strip is indeed near the geographic center of the city. But the real name for the tiny enclave in Pilsen?

“Lueste,” says Diana Baldacci, one of a handful of women who grew up in the neighborhood in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, are lifelong residents, and gather almost daily at Miceli’s Deli on Oakley and 24th Place for a coffee klatch. “In the old days the Italians would call it lueste, which is kind of slang for west side; that’s what they would say.”

“And then Little Italy was just called Taylor Street,” adds Rosemarie Bellandi, who’s lived in the neighborhood since ’57.

Whatever one calls it, there’s no doubt that the neighborhood is a precious jewel of Old World Chicago Italian dining and culture. While it reached its peak as a dining and nightlife destination in the ’60s and ’70s, when lines would be out the door for long-shuttered spots like Nello’s, Febo’s (logo: “Famous for Nothing”), Piscano’s, Marconi’s and Alfo’s, key players continue to thrive: Bruna’s since 1933, La Fontanella since 1972, Bacchanalia for 30 years, Il Vicinato, down the street on Western, since 1983 and Miceli’s Deli, located on a corner that’s housed a grocery store for a century, for about two decades. Roger Wroblewski, whose family has lived in the neighborhood for 120 years, opened the popular and cozy Ignotz’s Ristorante in 1999.

“Everyone came here to find work,” says Wroblewski on a Tuesday afternoon, working himself, behind the bar of his restaurant, while simultaneously keeping an eye on his three daughters, who all bus tables at Ignotz’s in the summers. “You had the lumberyards, Automatic Electric, McCormick Works/International Harvester. I don’t know how many thousands and thousands of people they employed. Practically the whole neighborhood worked there. That’s why these houses were built—small kitchen, two small bedrooms, because that’s all they did, sleep and go to work. Eat, sleep, work. Work, work, work.”

The neighborhood, though, far from taking on the tone of an industrial urban center, was much more like a Tuscan village.

“See, when we were kids, you didn’t have to go out of the neighborhood to go to the store,” says Angie “Cookie” Baldacci, Diana’s sister.

“We had our own shoemaker, bakery,” says Diana.

“Doctor, druggist,” says A., who wished to remain anonymous.

“Oakley Avenue was the main street,” says Diana.

“We’re talking in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s,” says A.

“When my father-in-law was alive, he would never leave the neighborhood,” says Bellandi. “He only went downtown twice a year—to pay the real estate taxes at City Hall. Because in our neighborhood you had a deli, stores, post office, dentist, undertaker. The old people never left.”

“My mother never spoke English because everyone here spoke Italian,” says Diana.

Life was characterized by gardens filled with tomatoes and string beans, grocery stores where one would choose a live chicken from the front yard, buccellato from Fontana Brothers Bakery, movie houses, carnivals staged by beloved local priest Father Louis Donanzan of St. Michael’s Church, wedding receptions at both the McCormick Works’ executive house and in the back of Miceli’s, then a co-op grocery store, or coopertiva, men’s clubs, bocce and the tombola, or Italian bingo, held in the street and accompanied by an Italian band.

“It wasn’t a big pot by today’s standards,” says Diana. “But in those days…”

“It’s a shame because it can never be duplicated,” says A. “It was before you had attached garages, so you never have to see your neighbor. You’re never outside now. You go to your house to your garage to your car and back. There’s no backyard talking. Back then, there was no air-conditioning; everyone was outside. You had your jug of lemonade, your jug of iced tea, kids were playing until 10 o’clock at night. It was the best of times.”

Today, the vast majority of Italians have left the neighborhood. McCormick Works closed in the ’50s. The old story of urban exodus to the suburbs took its toll. Yet traditions live on, particularly with the Chicago Festa Pasta Vino Italian Food and Wine Festival, which takes place every Father’s Day weekend. A Chicago favorite for 25 years, the festival features restaurant booths and celebrity entertainers like Nancy Sinatra, Dion and the Belmonts and Frankie Avalon. “Every year, I don’t cook Friday through Sunday!” says Bellandi.

The women of Miceli’s Deli—“they call us the Recycled Teenagers!” says Bellandi—see about 100 old friends once or twice a year when Alice Fontana, of the Fontana Brothers Bakery family, helps plan reunions at the Bohemian Crystal Restaurant in Westmont.

It’s the restaurants, though, that continue to draw the crowds in on Oakley, not just for the cuisine, but for the Old World friendliness of proprietors like Wroblewski, who can often be found buying customers an amaretto, or following them out the door to thank them for stopping in. And the trade continues to grow: Wroblewski opened a martini bar and small plates spot, One Door South, adjacent to Ignotz’s, in August, and an entrepreneur from Detroit recently bought two prominent buildings on the street, and is also planning to open up a new restaurant.

“It would be great to have a flower shop, bakery, more restaurants,” says Wroblewski, handing the ever-ringing phone to Jaime Antolec, a 22nd Street native and Iraqi war veteran who worked at Ignotz’s for more than five years before enlisting. In Iraq, his tank was blown up and his leg shattered. A good pal of Wroblewski’s, he returned to work at the restaurant when he healed up. Today, his Purple Heart hangs on the mantle at Ignotz’s.

“This is a TIF district; there’s money available,” says Wroblewski. “I hope you print this because I think it’s important: If someone was looking to come into the area, I personally would help them out 110 percent, and I’m not just blowing smoke. I love this neighborhood and I love this business. Let’s get things rolling!”
If things go the way Wroblewski hopes, lueste five years from now may look remarkably similar to the old neighborhood so fondly recalled by the Recycled Teenagers of Miceli’s Deli.