As with many cities throughout North America, Chicago’s Greektown came about as a result of Greek ship captains arriving in the city during the 1840s from New Orleans by way of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. They came to the USA with dreams of prosperity and were not afraid to work hard jobs. Many started off as food peddlers and with determination and good work ethic, eventually became restaurant owners. In fact, before World War II, Chicago boasted the largest Greek settlement in the USA. This is how Chicago’s Greektown came to its iconic status in the diverse and multicultural city.
Many people do not realize that Greektown originally was known as Deltaîbut, but as Greeks started to own restaurants they moved away from the areas of Fulton and South Water Streets Markets and settled around the Harrison, Blue Island and Halsted areas. The area soon became referred to as “Greektown,” and was eventually renamed as such.
The geography of Greektown has changed dramatically over the years, as it once was sprawling and much larger than the few city blocks it encompasses today. In the 1960s the construction of the Eisenhower Expressway and the University of Illinois at Chicago displaced the ethnic town, and forced it to move a few blocks north and the community disbursed to other existing Greek settlements such as Ravenswood, Woodlawn and South Shore. Today, the small strip on Halsted is typically hailed as the heart of Greektown as the Sears Tower looks over the town in the distance.
During the late ’60s, Chicago’s Greektown was one of the first to introduce gyros and saganaki to restaurant cuisine. From the ’70s through the ’90s, business was booming so much, in fact that the majority of the restaurants and business that are open in current day Greektown date back to then. Also festivals such as the Taste of Greece summer fest became a tradition.
Greek town received a face-lift of sorts during the mid 1990’s when the Democratic National Convention came to town. Acknowledging Greektown’s important role in defining the diversity of the city, the city of Chicago allocated millions of dollars into street renovations and construction of monuments of Greek temples and pavilions at the major intersection of the town. These contributions are still notable today and are well looked after in efforts to preserve the Greek culture in Chicago.
Today Greektown represents a cultural hub for the third largest population of Greeks living in the USA. It is estimated that around 150,000 people of Greek ancestry live in the greater Chicago area, making Greektown a relevant gathering place for current generations where you can still hear people speaking in Greek in the shops and restaurants. Even the Walgreens on the corner on South Halsted lights up its neon lights in Greek every night.