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Although Chicago doesn't have the large Italian population of New York or Boston, the small enclave of University Village/Little Italy is home to many celebrated Mediterranean eateries, including mom-and-pop joints that have been around for decades, cozy bistros that cater to the staff at The University of Illinois (UIC), and popular delis that serve sandwiches big enough to kill a small elephant.
The UIC campus dominates the area, surrounded by Catholic churches, museums like the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, ethnic grocery stores, and more than a few Joe DiMaggio statues.
While UIC students tend to hit the venues along Taylor and Halsted Streets – where sports bars and pubs provide cheap beer for broke coeds – there are a handful of comfy lounges that draw trendier undergrads and residents in the market for a slightly more upscale vibe.
Further south, the neighborhood blends into working-class Pilsen, the heart of Mexican American culture in Chicago. Buildings throughout this small enclave don’t lack for vibrant murals, especially along the main drag of 18th Street, which overflows with budget-friendly ethnic eateries, bakeries, and locally-owned craft stores tucked beneath the colorful portraits of Octavio Paz, Salma Hayek, and Jesus Christ.
Although largely industrial along its eastern half, Pilsen has seen an influx of artists moving in to cheap studio conversions, and is also home to the highly regarded National Museum of Mexican Art, leading many residents to dub the area “SoHo in Chicago” – a nod to the famed artists’ haven in New York.
Upscale boutiques and a few national chains have crept in to Pilsen – though not without controversy – and while nightlife options hardly abound, a handful of very popular modern restaurants and drinking dens are enough to entice people from all over town to make the trip in once and awhile.
But make no mistake: Pilsen is still the most profoundly Mexican area in Chicago and University Village/Little Italy is still a college town at heart.