On the surface, going to Chicago in the winter time might not seem like the best plan. I know that from the countless jokes I received from family members, friends and co-workers before I departed. Despite that friendly ribbing, the people of Chicago gave me a warm reception to their city.
This warm reception started before I left O’Hare International Airport. I had just gotten off of the plane and was headed to baggage claim when this person starts walking toward me. He’s waving his hand trying to flag me down and saying, “Oh my gosh, it’s you. I can’t believe it.” He tells me he loves my standup and my television shows. I’m thinking “not again.”
This is the third time I’ve been mistaken for actor and comedian Kevin James. The previous times were when I visited London and Rome. I do like James’ work but it’s funny for this to happen a third time.
After the odd bear hug in the terminal, he pulls out his cell phone and asks for a photo. Rather than fight it, I embraced the fact I’m James’ doppelganger and pose. He then shakes my hand and says, “It was a pleasure to meet you. I’ve got to go catch my flight.” He then disappeared around the corner. I’m glad I could make his day. Talk about a welcome to Chicago.
Usually, when I travel to a large city, I make use of the subway, buses or taxis to get around. This time I decided to use Uber and change up my experience. Going this route gave me a unique experience in how I got to know the city and its people. I highly recommend it.
The first driver I met was Marco, who I learned was from Croatia. Marco was talkative on the ride to the Billy Goat Tavern. He noted points of interest, historical spots, and great shops and restaurants. He also shared his experience as a long-haul trucker, the sites he saw traveling the country and the love he has for Chicago, which he referred to as “his city.” It was refreshing to see that kind of pride in the place you live in.
After exiting his vehicle, I headed down the stairs to Lower Wacker Drive and found the Billy Goat right on the corner of Wacker and Michigan Avenue. There are several Billy Goat Taverns around Chicago but the original is the one with the most history, character and interesting people.
From the outside, the building is a little rough looking but is yet colorful and illuminated by neon signs. It is famous for a supposed curse on the Chicago Cubs. The tavern’s owner at the time, Billy Sianis, brought his pet goat, Murphy, to game four of the 1945 World Series. According to the legend, Sianis was denied entry due to Murphy’s odor. Sianis then allegedly cursed the team, stating they would never win another championship.
The tavern has been home to local journalists over the years because it was situated between the offices of the Chicago Tribune and the old Sun-Times. It was also the unofficial office of columnist Mike Royko. Names of well-known journalists are above the bar and there are several tributes to Royko’s life on the walls. It also was made famous as the Olympia Café in a “Saturday Night Live” skit starring John Belushi. Lower Wacker Drive is famous for the chase scenes in “The Blues Brothers” and Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” films.
Walking into Billy Goat Tavern, I could feel the history as soon as I stepped inside. Time has kept the place’s uniqueness alive – and prevented it from becoming another forgettable chain. I recommend getting the original Cheezborger or the double Cheezborger with a side of barbecue chips and a Coke. Just know what you want before approaching the counter because you might get skipped over to the next person in line. The food hit the spot and crushed the hunger that I had when I walked in the door.
One of the neatest museums I got a chance to visit while in Chicago was the Museum of Science and Industry. It was on the top of my list of things to do because inside it has a German U-boat, U-505, that the U.S. Navy captured during World War II. Outside the submarine are a lot of interactive displays; however, you need to take a tour of the inside, which is an extra cost of $18. Well worth it. Our guide Robert explained everything in the sub down to the smallest detail, from crews’ living conditions to the dangers they faced on a war patrol.
For an extra fee at the museum, you could learn about coal mining through a recreation of an actual mine. Visitors were taken down into the mine through an elevator, shown how coal was excavated with machinery, shown how safety conditions were implemented over time and given a ride on a small train. The tour gave me a better appreciation of the work and dangers miners face daily. The museum also had a lot of interactive exhibits on advances in transportation and farming. There was a lot to take in.
Shedd Aquarium is a must see. You can get an upclose look at some magnificent creatures such as sharks, stingrays and all variety of fish and animal life. The aquarium offers several movies people can take in as well the chance to see ocean life one on one at the Abbott Oceanarium. Visitors to the Oceanarium can encounter Beluga whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, sea lions and sea otters.
I also recommend making a stop at the Art Institute of Chicago. There are some fantastic works from master artists such as Monet, El Greco and Rembrandt. I was just awestruck by how they were able to capture a moment in time in their mind and then share it with others on canvas. I liked the fact that the museum had art not just from Europe but from around the world, including a great collection of Asian art, photography, furniture and sculpture.
One painting that has always captivated me from the first time I saw it was “Nighthawks” by American painter Edward Hopper. It depicts a diner in New York City with three people sitting at the counter enjoying a cup of coffee and a conversation with the waiter. The painting has always had a timeless quality – and I can visualize myself in it.
At each exhibit, I can say there were half a dozen paintings that I have seen in books or have studied, but not have had the chance to see in person. Getting to see them in person gave me a better appreciation of the time, dedication, skill and heart put into each of these works.
There were several places where I made a brief visit because they were either not open or it was too cold outside. For me those were Wrigley Field, the Biograph Theater and the mural on 47th Street that was created for “The Blues Brothers” on the building used as Ray’s Music Exchange in the film. I also stopped by to see the Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park, which is known more commonly as “The Bean” due to its shape. Seeing the bean was a moment of pure fascination for me because of the way the stainless-steel plates reflect the skyline.
Wrigley was like going to baseball’s holy ground because of all the greats who have graced the diamond over the years and its bright red, iconic sign. I wish it would have been open to where I could have caught a game. Wrigley’s architecture reminds me of the since demolished Tiger Stadium in Detroit where I caught a lot of games with my dad. Wrigley gave me a warm fuzzy feeling looking at its high walls and remembering past summers in the sun.
Food was a big part of my trip. I have always considered food a great way to form friendships and build relationships – and Chicago didn’t disappoint in welcoming me to the city with the great dishes it has to offer.
I am a big fan of pizza and, over the years, I have had many pies of which my figure can attest to that fact. Apart from having the real deal when I went to Rome, Chicago holds its own when it comes to pizza. Each slice of deep dish is built like a thick cake with many layers that then melts in your mouth with its tomato goodness. Two places I recommend are Giordano’s at Navy Pier and Lou Malnati’s on North State Street. They don’t disappoint.
If you seek a Chicago-style hotdog, check out Portillo’s on Clark and Ontario. I recommend the Char-Grilled Maxwell Street Polish Sausage or the Italian Beef Sandwich, followed by a nap because the food coma it will put you in is terrific.
Well, Chicago, thanks for the memories and I look forward to coming back and cheering on the Cubs when baseball season starts up again in the spring.