My visit to Greektown left me with the overwhelming feeling of being full. Not only was my belly fully sated but also my spirit and heart.
Don’t get me wrong. Luckily, Brian (The Grid photographer) and I are warmly welcomed everywhere we visit but Greektown was special! The hospitality seemed unparalleled, accented by the most continuous and consistent outpouring of food, drink, stories and invitations to stay. It felt magical.
Each time I looked up there would be another plate of something delicious headed my way. I had already politely said “No, thank you” but regardless, here came another Greek-something “I just had to try” – a platter of lamb chops “It’s just a small taste” – grilled or fried calamari “We cut it and bread it ourselves” – and a sip of a Greek spirit – “You can handle one more pour!”
Greek hospitality is fit for royalty, delivered with fervor and absolute sincerity. There was no doubt in my mind that if I had asked for someone’s shirt, they would have given it to me off their back.
“Filoxenia” which means hospitality in Greek is alive and well in Chicago’s Greektown. It’s taken very seriously and of almost religious importance. The root of the word is formed from “filo” for friend and “xeno” for stranger. The word equalizes friend and stranger. Greek tradition requires that you be a friend to a stranger and is deeply rooted in historic ritual, even tracing back to the Greek gods. Zeus or Zeus Xenios was the god of travelers and hospitality.
Greek hospitality is a sacred tradition that Greek immigrants brought to America and have passed down through the generations. It extends from the thresholds of Greek-American homes to the businesses they own – something I discovered firsthand throughout my visit.
Next time you visit Chicago’s Greektown, I’d recommend taking the time to really soak it in, reflect on the history of the community, listen to the Greek Americans conversing in their native language, enjoy an extra coffee – an art form that has been perfected by the Greeks and take the time to really experience Greek hospitality.
A little history lesson
The very first Greeks arrived in Chicago around the 1840s. Accomplished sailors, Greeks traveled from New Orleans to the Great Lakes along the commercial routes of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.
A fantastic resource on the history of Chicago’s Greektown is the book: “Greektown Chicago: Its History – Its Recipes” by Alexa Ganakos. There are beautiful modern and historic photos, reflections from Greek Chicagoans and of course, recipes!
According to Ganakos, some notable first Greeks in Chicago included: Captain Nicholas Peppas who arrived in Chicago in 1857. And the first Greek-American child born in Chicago was Frank Combiths in 1869. (Combiths mother was not Greek, since Greek men arrived first to the United States, often with the intention of returning to Greece. Women came over later.)
Greece was experiencing tumultuous economic and political times, including natural disasters such as drought which devastated agricultural production. In addition to providing for the home, men were responsible for providing rather significant dowries for daughters in order for them to marry. If there were unwed sisters, their care was to be maintained as well.
All of these responsibilities and external factors of Greek life created a perfect storm where many households found themselves in monumental debt. The only solution for many Greek men was to travel to the United States in hopes of making enough money to pay off family debts, with the hopes of returning to Greece with enough money to start a new business or or investments.
A city that needed laborers and workers was Chicago. The rebuilding of the city after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 peaked demand for labor. Greeks arrived in Chicago in droves to help rebuild the city.
At first, most immigrants hailed from Peloponnesus – a geographic region encompassing the southern peninsula of Greece – including the cities of Sparta and Tripoli. Most of the families that hailed from the sub regional areas of Arcadia and Laconia (within Peloponnesus) worked in fruit, vegetable and animal agriculture for generations.
An early Greek pioneer of note was Christ Chakonas, deemed the “Columbus of Sparta” who arrived in Chicago in1872. Enthralled and inspired by the possibilities in Chicago, he traveled to Sparta often to persuade other Greek men to immigrate.
In 1885, the first reported Greek woman to arrive in Chicago was Mrs. Peter Pooley (née Bitzis), a wife of a sea captain from the island of Corfu, according to Ganakos’ book. In the 1900s, more women would arrive as many Greek men decided to stay in Chicago rather than returning home. Some women were “picture brides” and matches were arranged via family, friends and sometimes only based on a photo.
In the early 1890s, a concentration of Greek businesses hovered north of the Loop near Clark and Kinzie. Many of the initial Greek immigrants worked in the railroads and stockyards or as laborers and peddlers (often selling fruits and vegetables).
More established Greeks would be near Randolph Street Market or Haymarket Square and the South Water Street Market were where many peddlers would sell their goods and produce.
Also established during the 1900s, was Greektown in an area known as the “Delta” (Deltaîbut) section between Harrison and Polk streets and from Halsted to Blue Island Avenue.
A cultural ritual in Greece is to enjoy coffee for hours at a cafe while catching up with friends, hearing and sharing news. These coffee shops or “kaffenia” in Greek, were key in providing a social network for men who were far from family, friends and their homeland. It also created a reprieve from crowded living situations that new immigrants often had to endure. There were more than one hundred cafes in the Delta, each often representing the many different regions and subcultures in Greece according to author Dianne Gannon in the book, “The Foods of Chicago: A Delicious History.”
There were other enclaves of Greek settlements in the 1900s. One was on the South Side at 63rd between Wentworth and Cottage Grove in Woodlawn. And wherever there were Greeks, there was a Greek Orthodox church to serve the community. There, Greeks congregated at Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church and Koraes School.
Another enclave of Greek life was in the predominantly German neighborhood of Lincoln Square. This became “Greektown North” after UIC’s construction and expansion. (More on UIC and its effect on Greektown later.) There were more than 100 Greek businesses in Lincoln Square during “Greektown North’s” peak. Saint Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church was the anchor of Greek-American life then and now, in 2018, is marking 90 years in the community.
By 1927, more than 10,000 Chicago area-run businesses had Greek owners. According to Gannon’s book, “forty percent of Greek men who came to United States prior to 1940 returned to Greece. Prior to WWII, Chicago was home to more Greeks than any other U.S. city.”
Along with family, church provided an important spiritual, stabilizing and social foundation. The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church was established in 1892 by immigrants from Laconia and some Greek Islands, first renting a hall on Randolph near Union Street. The church is now on 1017 N. Lasalle, built in 1914.
Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church was founded in 1897 but its Peoria location was demolished for the UIC campus build out (more on this later). It now makes its home on 6041 W. Diversey. Assumption Greek Orthodox Church of Chicago was founded in 1925 with the current structure built in 1937.
A significant reason why Greek immigrants (along with immigrants and settlers from Italian, Latino, African-American and Jewish backgrounds) were able to get settled and start their new lives with a fighting chance was the result of the work by the Hull House, established in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr.
Addams and Gates were inspired by the settlement home movement started in London in the 1880s. They worked by attracting middle-class women and men who were educated and native-born to settle and reside in poorer, urban neighborhoods and do some good while living there.
In the settlement homes, immigrants of diverse communities gathered to learn, share a meal together, socialize and acquire skills to acclimate to their new country. The museum that stands now on UIC’s campus is comprised of two of the settlement complex’s original 13 buildings, the Hull-Home and the Residents’ Dining Hall. Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
In 1949, construction of the Eisenhower Expressway and then later the Kennedy Expressway chopped off large sections of the Greek Delta area displacing Greeks along with many minority groups in the area. Urban renewal and the city campus construction for UIC’s campus took over much of Greektown’s geographic region. It displaced hundreds of Greek businesses and homes.
Similar to Little Italy, Greektown’s residents scattered – moving to other Greek enclaves and the suburbs. The neighborhood became smaller and shifted north. Greektown of today is concentrated on Halsted from Monroe to Van Buren.
Preserving Greek culture and language is important to the Greek Chicago community. The Chicago Greektown Education Foundation was formed in 2014. The non-profit helps to raise money for Greek schools in the Chicago area to maintain Greek school programs. If you’re interested, you can check them out here.
Greektown to-do list
Greektown is small but mighty! And as mentioned, the hospitality is unparalleled!
- At the end of August, as summer winds down, Greektown throws its Taste of Greektown Festival. There are dance troupes, Greek bands and of course, an incredible amount of delicious Mediterranean food.
- If you’re looking for another celebration of Greek cuisine but interpreted through the eyes of non-Greek chefs, check out Kouzina at the National Hellenic Museum. This event happens on November 1, 2018 and all proceeds benefit the museum.
- Stop by the National Hellenic Museum. It has rotating contemporary exhibits along with permanent ones about Greek history and the Greek immigrant experience. Founded in 1983, its current location on Halsted Street opened on December 10, 2011. It’s a gorgeous modern (soon-to-be) LEED-certified space that holds more than 17,000 artifacts spanning thousands of years.
- Athenian Candle Company is a must-see shop. It’s a fourth generation, family-owned business established in 1922. Owners Thomas and Jean Paspalas run the shop with the help of their three children and grandchildren. They make a variety of hand-dipped tapered candles in-house ranging from 8 inches to 5-feet in height. These candles are used in celebrations, sacraments and ceremonies and fill the liturgical needs of the Greek and Orthodox communities. They also have icons, electric and oil lamps (kandilia), charcoal, incense (livani), cemetery lamps, vigil lights, worry beads (komboloi), statues, rosaries, prayer cards, crucifixes, essential oils, sprays and books catering to diverse religious faiths. When I was visiting, the diversity of clientele was immense – in age, religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Where to eat
For lunch or dinner I’d recommend Greek Islands Restaurant. Since 1971, Gus Couchell and a group of his friends pursued their American dream through their restaurant. Couchell continues to oversee that ingredients are top quality. He imports olive oil, Greek lima beans, orzo and wine from Greece. He passionately told me that the best lamb comes from Colorado and that his fish is flown in fresh from the Mediterranean.
Head to Artopolis Bakery for a Greek coffee and pastry in the morning. If you’re up for the holy of caffeine get a Greek come or a cappuccino freed or an iced Nescafe Frappé. Perhaps you’d rather have a Classic Bellini with Prosecco with your choice of peach or raspberry puree. There’s baklava, loukoumades (Greek puff pastries), lemon custard, chocolates and the savory artopitas (fillings range from spinach and feta to chicken and artichokes. There are sandwiches, pizzas, salads, soups and a hot bar. Also, a full bar. Come for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
If you’re looking for a bar, head over to Nine Muses Bar and Grill. Named after the nine daughters/goddesses of Zeus, each presides over a particular form of art. The food is classic but elevated and the bar is comfortable and casual. There are small plates to entree-size portions and a full bar serving craft beer, wine and cocktails.
For all night owls who love to dance and snack late into the evening, Spectrum Bar and Grill is a hidden gem. In 2018, Spectrum celebrated its 30th anniversary. Its real charm comes from the incredibly hospitable and fun owner Andreas Koumi. He is there every night until closing. His passion for his business hasn’t waned despite all of years of late nights. The kitchen stays open late until the wee hours of the morning.
One more thing
If you’re wondering just how much flaming saganaki is ordered in Greektown in one year, the Greektown Chamber estimates 150,000 platters of cheese get ignited table side. And when it comes to gyros, the chamber estimates 3,500 cones of meat are consumed in one year. Opa!
Rubye Lane also contributed to this report.