Chicago gets better with each visit. We spent the past weekend there, coinciding with a spectacular early fall weather front that made it difficult to leave for home on Sunday. Our visit coincided with the best game the Cubs have played all year, not that I care about the Cubs. In fact, as a certified Cardinals fan, I’m supposed to hate the Cubs. But how can you hate a team that seems so connected to last place and still draws 40,000 fans a game to a ballpark that’s as rich in tradition as any of them?
This marked my third visit in 12 years, with the first time mostly a Cardinals-Cubs trip with some partying mixed in. This time, a Cubs game (against the Reds, who only mathematically — but definitely not mentally — were still contending for the National League Central title) was just a small part of the trip.
The food was exceptional at Chicago this time. The scale on Monday morning certainly reflected as much. But, for whatever reason, the urge this time was to cram as much as possible during the waking hours of a 48-hour visit to the Windy City.
That meant Italian food at a downtown branch of the Little Italy restaurant The Rosebud; beers at the Billy Goat Tavern, famed for providing John Belushi with the “chee-burger, chee-burger” line for a “Saturday Night Live” skit as well as being a hangout for journalists; checking out Michigan Avenue with my wife, and hitting Nordstrom in its vertical mall (and missing by one day Bono and his wife, who were pushing T-shirts as a fund-raiser for one of the singer’s causes); steaks and drinks at the incomparable Gene and Georgetti’s on Franklin; a Saturday morning, two-hour “Untouchables Gangster” tour, noontime beers at The Kerryman Irish pub on Clark Street, where the barkeep really was from Ireland; a ride on the L to Wrigleyville and a well-played and well pitched (a two-hitter by Cubs rookie Rich Hill) game; dinner at the trendy Marche in the West Loop (New Zealand grouper as the main course); a wild taxi ride back to the Sofitel; and Sunday brunch at Bistro 110 downtown, another can’t-miss eatery if you visit Chicago anytime soon. The three-course prix fixe brunch for $22 is unbelievable, and there is Dixieland jazz to help your Eggs Louisiana (crab cakes topped with poached eggs and hollandaise sauce AND creole sauce) go down, if the eye-opening drink doesn’t do the trick (my three courses also included spicy shrimp gumbo and creme brulee; and, yes, it’s time to hit the treadmill hard).
The lakefront’s Millennium Park and neighboring Grant Park were alive with activity all weekend, including a two-day Gaelic Festival. The Bears were at home at Soldier Field, also nearby, and we hardly noticed any cars around even though the game drew 60,000. The King Tut traveling exhibit is at the Field Museum until Jan. 1.
Still wondering about that “Untouchables Gangster” tour? I was too when I arrived at the McDonald’s on Clark Street at 10 a.m., after a 10-block or so walk from the hotel. It sounded like it could be cheesy, but Chicagoans seem a little proud of the notoriety of the Al Capone days. The guys who arrived in a black-painted school bus were dressed in wiseguy gear, pin-striped suits with the backs of their fedoras turned up. The guy behind the wheel asked if my McDonald’s cup contained gin. They warned us to duck often if we heard the sound of bullets so they could maintain their 85 percent return rate of riders at the tour’s end.
Actually the tour was both a comedy riot (these guys, Father Jimmy and Al, whose Italian last name escapes me now, could work a comedy club, and might) and an informative a way to get around Chicago and learn many things about the city, not just where Dion O’Banion took six shots to the heart in his floral shop, which is now a parking lot. The Clark Street garage where the 1929 Valentine’s Day Massacre took place is also an empty lot between buildings, but the rooms across the street where the Capone guys hid out awaiting the Moran gang’s arrival at the garage are still there, now gentrified apartments. One bullet hole remains, they say, in the front of Holy Name Cathedral on State Street, where Earl “Hymie” Weiss breathed his last after Capone’s men took him out. It’s right across the street from where O’Banion’s floral shop stood.
We learned all about Taylor Street and Little Italy, and the poor Genna boys who couldn’t stand up to the Northsiders after three of them were picked off. Our storytellers also made sure we knew that it was really Jack McGurn, not Capone, who took a baseball bat to a couple of traitors of the Southside organization.
We passed the business of Chicago’s big kingpin of today: the Harpo studios of Oprah Winfrey.
Who knew Chicago was named for wild onions, or their stench, by local Native Americans? Who knew that Grant Park was actually formed by landfill on the banks of Lake Michigan from the 1871 Chicago fire?
Just a few tidbits of information about a great city, and all for $25.
You can take a boat tour, and check out Chicago’s great architecture. But you’re not going to get Louis Prima songs or the classic ’20s and’30s music unless you ride the black bus of the “Untouchables Gangster” tour, where the ladies get the “roses” left over from O’Banion’s killing, and riders can win such prizes as Tommy gun tie-clips and DVDs of celebrated cemetery headstones of the gangsters.