City planners say it’s time to put Northwest Side’s Little Italy on the map

A long-running effort to turn a stretch of Harlem Avenue on the Far Northwest Side into a walkable showcase for Italian American businesses and culture like Little Italy’s Taylor Street is inching forward.

City planners told the Chicago Plan Commission the 2-mile stretch between Grand Avenue and Irving Park Road can become a destination neighborhood like its Near West Side predecessor with improvements to the streetscape that can help attract visitors and new residents.

That section of Harlem is the future home of the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, and already hosts many Italian restaurants and shops, but isn’t well-known to tourists or outsiders, said Carmen Martinez of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development.

She presented a draft of the Harlem Avenue Visioning Study at Thursday’s commission meeting, outlining a plan to create community gathering spaces and new landscaping, increase pedestrian safety, maintain the neighborhood’s heritage and perhaps install archways on the thoroughfare, creating a brand like the South Side’s Chinatown or Paseo Boricua on Division Street in Humboldt Park.

“This vision is more than 20 years in the making,” she said.

Local business leaders began pushing city officials two decades ago to further recognize their neighborhood, which extends through the Montclare and Dunning community areas, Martinez said. In 2023, city planners, along with state and city transportation officials, local aldermen, area businesses and a consultant team led by site design group ltd., a Chicago-based landscape architect, began walking tours of the area and holding community meetings.

Neighborhood residents urged commission members Thursday to adopt the plan.

“It’s a beautiful community, but our community is getting old, and we need a new generation to come in,” said longtime Harlem Avenue businessmen Gino Bartucci Sr., who operates a gift shop.

A full vote by the Plan Commission will be held in June, but funding for the work will require additional approvals from City Council.

Martinez said the city will initially focus on the intersections of Harlem Avenue and Belmont Avenue, Diversey Avenue and Roscoe Street, which feature Italian, Hispanic and Middle Eastern restaurants, bakeries, cafes and shops. She proposed transforming vacant lots or buildings into gathering spaces or plazas, widening sidewalks with new planters, adding bus stops, and where possible, shortening crosswalks with bumpouts.

“This will make the area much more attractive to new businesses,” said Portage Park Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Michael Giordano.

Harlem is currently a daunting street to cross for many pedestrians, said Martinez, but designing safe, walkable areas will hopefully bring travelers and convention attendees from nearby O’Hare Airport and Rosemont.

“Let’s bring them to Harlem Avenue and show them another part of the city,” she said.

The National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame will open at 3417 N. Harlem Ave. in the fall, said President Ron Onesti. It was recently located on Taylor Street in Little Italy, but displacement and gentrification forced many Italian American residents to leave.

It made sense to move the hall, which features exhibits such as Rocky Marciano’s 1952 heavyweight championship belt, an Indy 500 race car driven by Mario Andretti and Joe DiMaggio’s baseball glove, to Harlem Avenue.

“Chicago’s Taylor Street was where Italians originally settled, but in the 1950s and 1960s, Mayor Daley used eminent domain to clear the neighborhood so they could build the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Medical District, so the Italian community was essentially wiped out,” he said.

“They had to find a new place quickly, and many moved to the Northwest Side and suburbs like Elmwood Park and Norridge,” he said. “Harlem Avenue flows through all these communities.”

The hall’s former Taylor Street location is now a boutique hotel.

Martinez said the planning department will continue meeting with residents and stakeholders to refine or adjust the plan even if it’s adopted.

“The engagement is not going to stop in June,” she said.