While there are several Italian-American communities that thrive within the Chicago metropolitan area, Taylor Street, the port-of-call for Chicago’s Italian American immigrants, inherited the title of Chicago’s “Little Italy.” Taylor Street’s Little Italy is part of a larger community area — Chicago’s Near West Side. Dominant among the immigrant communities that comprised the Near West Side during the mass migration of Europeans around the start of the 20th century, were Italians, Greeks and Jews. Other ethnic groups vacated the neighborhood beginning in the early 1900s, and only the Italian-American enclave remained as a vibrant community.
Other ethnicities have always been present in the area known as “Little Italy.” Nonetheless, the neighborhood was given its name due to the strong influence of Italians and Italian culture on the neighborhood throughout the 19th and 20th century. The Italian population, peaking during the decades of the 1950s and ’60s, began declining shortly after the decision to build the University of Illinois in the area was finalized in 1963. However, several Italian restaurants and businesses remain in the formerly prominent Taylor Street corridor.
Italians began arriving in Chicago in the 1850s in small numbers. By 1880, there were 1,357 Italians in the city. By the 1920s, Italian cookery became one of the most popular ethnic cuisines in America, spawning many successful bakeries and restaurants—some of which prospered for generations and continue to influence the Chicago dining scene today. By 1927, Italians owned 500 grocery stores, 257 restaurants, 240 pastry shops, and numerous other food related businesses that were concentrated in the Italian neighborhoods.
The immigration of Italians accelerated throughout the late 19th century and into the early 20th century. Chicago’s foreign-born Italian population was 16,008 in 1900 and peaked at 73,960 in 1930. The largest area of settlement was the Taylor Street area, but there were also 20 other significant Italian enclaves throughout the city and suburbs. This was the home of the Genna crime family.