Chicago doesn’t have a minimum neon requirement in its business signs like Las Vegas does. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t prominent examples of the illuminating art around town.
This sign for Papa Milano’s (951 North State Street) was a landmark in the Gold Coast neighborhood for decades, though the original restaurant opened on Diversey Parkway in 1933 (or maybe the other way around; the Tribune and the Sun-Times differ on this). The Gold Coast location was a landmark in part because it marked the corner of Oak Street and North State Street, the neighborhood’s two most important streets; and also because it marked the location of some of the best Italian food in a neighborhood with a rinfresco of Italian food options.
Papa Milano’s could only be assumed to be wildly successful. It was praised by restaurant reviewers in newspapers as far away as New Jersey. At any time of the day, getting a table was an exercise in luck and futility. The tables themselves were crammed in with an efficiency verging on the mathematically impossible. And this meant that everyone in the joint shared their neighbor’s air, conversation, and elbow room, whether they wanted to or not. Even on a sub-zero winter’s night the dining room reached sauna-like levels of heat and humidity. The forever-menacing oncoming headlights from West Oak Street traffic could barely pierce the thick fog and frost clinging to the windows.
That isn’t to say that it was impossible to get a table there. If you were a certain kind of VIP (for example, a certain well-coiffed and recently imprisoned Illinois governor), accommodations would be made in the old school Chicago fashion. The owners seemed very partial to one particular shopgirl from Barney’s New York across the street. Whenever her tiny presence crossed the restaurant’s crumbling threshold, even in the thick of lunch or dinner service, a seat would magically open up in her favorite corner where previously there had been a knot of local politicians, foreign tourists, and Viagra Triangle cruisers.
It was actually Barney’s that killed Papa Milano’s. The department store chain bought the block and knocked down the restaurant to put up a new flagship store. The old Barney’s is now Hermes and the location where Papa Milano’s closed in 2007 is now a Citibank.