Sweet Home Chicago, Part One: Gangsters and Elephants

On the road again — this time to Wisconsin to spend time with my daughter and do some wedding planning.  Of course, for me to get to Wisconsin, I have to go through Chicago, which is one of my favorite cities.  I’ve been here several times, so I’ve seen many of the major tourist and “roadie” attractions (at least the type I like), and there are some dozzies!  For the first timer, make sure you make the “gangster” rounds.  You can take tours or there is plenty of information from books and the Internet that will show you where famous shootouts happened (some of which still have bullet holes as proof); the site where Dion O’Banion’s flower shop used to stand; the storefront that used to be a funeral home for many of the famous dead; the Biograph Theater, which looks the same as it did the day John Dillinger was gunned down in front of it when he came out with the “lady in red”; and, the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Other interesting stops include:

  • the site of the start of the Great Chicago Fire, which is marked by a flame sculpture.  Ironically, the site is now occupied by the Chicago Fire Department Training Academy.
  • a half-size replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the northern suburb of Niles.
  • the first McDonald’s franchise opened by Ray Kroc, now a museum, and the site of mass murderer John Wayne Gacy’s home, both in Des Plaines.
  • Mt. Carmel Cemetary in Hillside, contains a couple of interesting grave sites.  The Capone family is buried here, including Al, as well as some other famous gangsters, but I think the most interesting grave is that of the “Italian Bride.” Julia Petta.  Petta died at age of 29 during childbirth.  A beautiful-life-size statue of Petta in  her wedding dress marks the site; her bridal portrait, after which the statue was modeled, graces the stone.  During the six years following her death, Petta’s mother had disturbing dreams that  her daughter was still alive.  When she finally got permission to have the body exhumed, it was discovered that the young woman’s body had not decayed.  After the body was reburied, a second picture was added to the stone — that of Petta in her casket after she was exhumed showing the “incorruptible” state of her body.
  • Another interesting cemetary is located in Forest Park, not too far away.  Showmen’s Rest, in Woodlawn Cemetary contains the graves of hundreds of circus performers, more than 50 of whom were killed in a train crash nearby.  Due to the nature of the horrific crash, these mostly unidentified performers are buried in a mass grave.  Five mourning elephant statues guard the site.
  • Of course, if you like to get your kicks on Route 66, this is the traditional starting point.  The Mother Road actually starts downtown near the lake on Jackson, but this is a one-way street heading the wrong way, so you need to start one block over on Adams; a sign marks the official spot.  As you wind your way through the city streets of Chicago, onto the neighborhood of Cicero and further west, you can still see some remnants of hotels and restaurants.  Be sure to start the trip with a skillet breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s, where women and children still get free boxes of Milk Duds,  and grab a hot dog at Henry’s Drive-in where the hot dog “is a meal in itself,” or some chicken at Del Rhea’s Chicken Basket.

One other restaurant note:  There’s a fantastic steak and seafood place called Al Capone’s Hideaway and Steakhouse between St. Charles and Elgin, about 45 minutes west of Chicago.  You have to follow the signs posted on trees along a winding back road to get to this former speakeasy with a rich history, and it’s well worth the trip.

Next up — the new treasures found on THIS trip!


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