Chicago’s Greek Quarter, the dining and nightlife district of the city’s Near West Side, is the undisputed cultural hub of the third largest population of Greeks living in the United States.
Greektown bars and restaurants, serving some of the best Greek food in the country, can be found roughly between Van Buren and Madison streets along Halsted Street, west of the loop.
It is estimated that approximately 150,000 people of Greek descent live in the greater Chicago area. The language is still heard in the neighborhood, and the community comes out in full ethnic pride during the annual Greek Independence Day parade, the “Taste of Greece” festival and days surrounding Greek Easter.
The Hellenic National Museum, the renowned center of Greco-American history, is also located in the area.
Konstantinos Koutsogiorgas, owner of the “Greek Islands” restaurant, which opened in 1971, says Greektown is becoming Chicago’s new “red light district”.
“We started in a small room where we had around 30 loyal customers a day. We have gradually grown, moved to a bigger location, and now we serve around 1,000 customers every day, ”Koutsogiorgas says with legitimate pride.
From the Greek city of Chicago to Greece
“My body is here in Chicago, but by soul my spirit is in Greece,” he told the Greek journalist in an interview.
The first Greeks from Chicago arrived as captains of ships in the 1840s. After deciding to settle ashore, they began working as food hawkers and, by natural progression, quickly became restaurateurs.
By the turn of the century, the Greek population was concentrated around the areas of Harrison, Blue Island and Halsted, originally known as Deltaîbut, later renamed “Greektown”. At the time, this was where the entire Greek community lived, where its doctors, lawyers and traders were based.
During the 1960s, Greektown was moved by the Eisenhower Freeway and the University of Illinois at Chicago, forcing residents and businesses to move north a few blocks. Most Greeks at this time were also rising into the middle class and moving to the suburbs. But their businesses, especially in the food industry, have remained rooted in Greektown.
“Chicago’s second and third generation Greeks actually spread out of town,” says Maria Melidis, owner of “Artopolis,” a Greek delicatessen that opened in 2000.
The Greek staple, the gyroscope, as well as saganaki (fried cheese, presented flambé style at the table) were first introduced in the United States in Chicago’s Greek Quarter in 1968. Most restaurants and companies currently operating there were opened from 1970 to 1990, and the “Taste of Greece” summer festival has become a tradition.
John Theoharis, owner of the 9 Muses bar, says his business “has become an institution in Chicago. It is a place where many generations of Greeks have come, met, got married.
His son, Stathis Theoharis, bartender, “carries on the legacy of Greektown,” says his father, who adds that the younger generation of Greeks are turning to their Greek culture again.
“They want to support Greek businesses. They come, they dance traditional Greek dances like the Kalamatianos, they dance on bars. Little by little, they are turning to Greek culture, ”he explains.
“Their roots are here. Knowing that they have a place where you are not completely Americanized, Ground Zero is there, ”adds Theoharis.