Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. And while some neighborhoods resist change, others are swept away into the dustbin of history. Though real estate agents love to fudge with its boundaries, Lincoln Park remains Lincoln Park. Little Hell is now Cabrini Green. Chinatown moved from the Loop to the South Side. And in spite of being eviscerated twice in the name of progress, Little Italy still hangs on.
But just as there once was a Chinatown in The Loop, there once was another Little Italy in Chicago, though not known by that name. It’s the area we now call River North.
At one time this was a bustling community of Italian immigrants. Independent and populous enough to break away from Old Saint Patrick’s church in the West Loop and form its own parish — Assumption Catholic Church (323 West Illinois Street). Italian families that long ago assimilated and moved to the ‘burbs still make the trek back downtown to worship at this wonderful church, constructed in a style that will be very familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a boot-shaped country.
Gene and Georgetti’s restaurant is another sign of the neighborhood’s heritage, though opening its doors in 1941 makes it a mere youngster compared with the people who put up the “De Luxe Candy Co” sign a few blocks away.
De Luxe Candy was founded in 1919 by Domenico Passaglia, of Santa Margherita, Italy. He was the chief conductor of the Italian railroad, but came to America in 1910. After working for other people, and trying to start another business which failed, he opened his candy company.
In that era, opening a candy company in Chicago made perfect sense. Chicago was the candy capital of the world, and all the raw materials could either be sourced nearby, or flowed into Chicago on the endless ribbons of freight trains that made the city an industrial powerhouse.
In the 1930’s he pivoted his business and began making high-end ice cream for restaurants and hotels. That lasted until… well, we’re not sure. The most recent record we could find for De Luxe was a Chicago Tribune article from 1981 where Mr. Passaglia’s son Elio expressed his concern about the gentrification of River North. He worried that all the new condo owners would push him out.
Former 42nd Ward Alderman Burt Natarus said that the burden is on the yuppies, not the old businesses. “New people will have to come in here with their eyes open and realize that this is a mixed-use area for residential, commercial, and manufacturing property,” he told the Tribune. “Living here is not the same as living in the suburbs. To make it go, you have to be more tolerant environmentally.”
Today we see that it was Mr. Passaglia who had the clearer vision of the future, as that newspaper article seems to be the end of the paper trail for his company. Today all that is left is the stone sign above the front door at 445 North Wells Street, which is now a bank surrounded by the lofts, art galleries, boutiques, and gourmet doughnut shops so vital to supporting today’s hipster culture.