CHICAGO — Red sauce and wine still flow on Little Italy's Taylor Street, and the saganaki still flames on Greektown's strip of Halsted.
But there is less Italian and Greek heritage on the menu these days on two of Chicago's best-known dining corridors.
"We have tourists come in and ask, 'Where is Little Italy?' " said Ralph Davino, third-generation owner of Pompei, one of a handful of Italian restaurants that remain on Taylor Street. "I have to tell them it's gone."
The Italian and Greek flair that distinguished those neighborhoods has been ebbing for years, a result of changes in demographics and consumers' palates. The booming Fulton Market district nearby and encroaching real estate development added new pressures. Some worry the pandemic will be the final straw.
One of Greektown's remaining stalwarts, Santorini, is in danger of losing its longtime home because its landlord is interested in selling to a residential developer, according to real estate experts.
Two of Little Italy's best-known restaurants, Francesca's and Davanti Enoteca, closed their doors for good in June. Pompei's property, on the western edge of Little Italy, is on the market for sale for $4.9 million. The restaurant wants to move into a smaller space in a redeveloped building on the site, Davino said.
Chicago history is filled with examples of neighborhoods that changed cultural identities, including past Italian and Greek enclaves, and other strongholds in the city have worries too. Chinatown was particularly hard-hit in the early days of the pandemic. Others, like Pilsen's Mexican community and Polish pockets along Milwaukee Avenue, face pressures associated with gentrification. Similar changes are happening in some other cities.
Still, the demise of two notable examples so close to the Loop would be a blow for a city that prides itself on its patchwork of distinct neighborhoods that showcase Chicago's immigrant heritage.
"If these ethnic commercial districts are lost, Chicago might lose some legitimacy as a global city," said Curt Winkle, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who lives in Little Italy.
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