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A taste of history in Greektown

Spanakopita (Photo by Leah A. Zeldes.)

Spanakopita (Photo by Leah A. Zeldes.)

Hearty servings of gyros, lamb chops, souvlaki, grilled octopus, spinach pie, baklava and other delicacies attest to the talents of Greektown’s chefs during the 24th annual Taste of Greektown, Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 24 and 25. The event highlights food and spirits from area restaurants, along with Greek bands, ethnic dancing, kids activities and games, plus a fine-arts display, new this year. The festival takes place from noon through 11 p.m. along the 100 through 400 blocks of South Halsted Street.

That stretch has been the center of Greektown since the 1960s, but the Greek presence in Chicago is much older, dating to the 1840s, when immigrants from Greece, largely seamen, began to settle in the neighborhood of Halsted, Harrison and Blue Island streets. That area, once known as “the Delta,” was America’s largest Greek community until after World War II.

Chicago’s Greek population expanded rapidly as early arrivals revisited Greece and talked up their new city and its potential. Christ Chakonas, who had come to Chicago in 1873 in the wake of the Great Fire, became known as the “Columbus of Sparta” for his repeated trips to recruit fellow Spartans for the lucrative opportunities surrounding the rebuilding of Chicago. Many of the newcomers became food peddlers, and later restaurateurs.

The community shifted north to its current location in the 1960s, displaced by construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Eisenhower Expressway. Some of the earliest Greektown restaurants still exist. The Parthenon opened in 1968, where founder Chris Liakouras was among the first to popularize gyros in the United States, working with Illinois Gas Co. to create a rotisserie gyros cooker, and passing samples out free to customers. Liakouras’ place was the first to light saganaki afire — a suggestion of a customer. These innovations soon spread throughout Greektown and around the nation. Other venerable eateries include Greek Islands, which opened on Jackson Boulevard in 1971 and moved to its present location in 1983, and Roditys, opened in 1972.

While the Greek populace has spread through Chicago and the suburbs, Greektown remains a vibrant destination for Greek shopping and dining, as well as the Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center. Greektown restaurants still stay open late and serve a broad range of traditional cuisine. The neighborhood is the best place in Chicago to find lamb served in a variety of ways.