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Thursday, June 3, 2004 02:09 pm

Chi-town

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Summer transforms Chicago into a kind of carefree resort town
Photo by Peter J. Schulz/City of Chicago

"Chicago is an October sort of city even in spring." So wrote the late author Nelson Algren, who chronicled the city's vast underworld of street hustlers, ward bosses, and mob heavies.

But in the summer, Chicago sheds its tough-guy veneer and transforms itself into a kind of carefree resort town.

Sunbathers and volleyball players take to the hot sands along Lake Michigan, making people-watching a full-time occupation.

And each weekend brings new festivals and street fairs drawing hordes of folks in flip-flops and tank tops.

Historically, restrictive housing covenants partitioned Chicago into two halves: the white North Side and the black South Side. But new investment in some of the city's more impoverished areas, along with the influx of new immigrant groups, have helped erode those barriers.

Today the city's divisions are happily carved out by sports fanatics. South Siders pledge loyalty to the White Sox; North Siders root for the Cubs in the team's beloved ivy-covered stadium.

Of course, some things in Chicago seem never to change. Politics remains an often-vicious spectator sport, and there's still a Daley serving as ringmaster.

Nearly a century ago, poet Carl Sandburg marveled at Chicago industry, dubbing the town the "city of big shoulders." More recently, journalist Mike Royko softened that image by saluting the city's tapestry of racial and ethnic neighborhoods.

Surely tourists venturing to Chicago could pleasantly fill all their days and nights downtown. From the lofty spray of Buckingham Fountain to the world-class architecture of Michigan Avenue and the glitzy shops lining the Magnificent Mile, there's much to enjoy.

And the city's efforts to beautify the downtown area with mass flower plantings make for an idyllic summerscape -- one that Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin hopes to emulate.

But any native, from Algren to Royko, would say Chicago's neighborhoods are its lifeblood. So when you travel Interstate 55 three hours north for a weekend or week-long visit this summer, here are some tips for exploring the whole of Chicago.

Fairs and festivals

Chicago hosts scores of fairs and festivals every summer, beginning the first weekend in June.

The 57th Street Art Fair, centered in the University of Chicago's gothic campus in Hyde Park; and the Printers Row Book Fair, held in the South Loop area, kick off the summer fests on June 5 and 6. These neighborhood fairs are perennial favorites of the city's intellectual elite.

The next weekend, June 10-13, guitar greats Robert Lockwood Jr., David "Honey Boy" Edwards, and Lonnie Brooks take the stage at Grant Park as part of the 21st annual Chicago Blues Festival.

A landscaped oasis between historic Michigan Avenue and Lake Michigan, Grant Park plays host to some the city's best-known festivals.

After the blues pickers move on, Wynonna, Buddy Miller, and the Flatlanders will ramble into Grant Park June 26 and 27 for the 14th annual Chicago Country Music Festival.

That celebration coincides with Taste of Chicago, a food fest with an annual draw of some 3 million that begins June 25 and ends July 4 with the city's spectacular fireworks display launched from Navy Pier.

Though the Taste may be the city's most popular festival, the Chicago Air and Water Show is by far its most thrilling. The show features the U.S. Navy's death-defying Blue Angels, scheduled to wow the crowds gathered at North Avenue Beach on Aug. 21 and 22.

For a complete schedule of Chicago fairs and festivals, visit www.ci.chi.il.us/SpecialEvents/.

Museums

The Art Institute of Chicago, located downtown at 111 S. Michigan Ave., boasts remarkable collections of ancient art, textiles, photography, African art, and European paintings. From June 19 through Sept. 19, Chicago's largest museum offers the exhibit Seurat and the Making of "La Grande Jatte." The show will display the works of several 19th-century masters, including Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro. For more information, call 312-443-3600 or visit www.artic.edu.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave., offers paintings, photography, sculpture, and video created since World War II. Call 312-280-2660 or www.mcachicago.org.

Take the whole family to Museum Campus Chicago, a 57-acre lakefront park that includes the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum (312-922-7827); the Field Museum, home to the world's largest Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton (312-922-9410); and the John G.. Shedd Aquarium, which showcases dolphins, penguins, sharks, and whales (312-692-3274). For more information, visit www.museumcampus.org.

Another family favorite is the Museum of Science and Industry, located in Hyde Park at 5700 S. Lake Shore Dr. Filled with hands-on learning tools, the museum also boasts an Omnimax theatre. Call 773-684-1414 or visit www.msichicago.org.

While on the South Side, you might want to venture west to the DuSable Museum of African American History, located on the edge of the historic Bronzeville neighborhood at 740 E. 56th Place. The oldest museum of its type in the United States, the DuSable traces the historical experiences and achievements of African-Americans. Call 773-947-0600 or visit www.dusablemuseum.org.

Theaters

Those who enjoy seeing plays outdoors need look no further than the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. This summer's fare includes King John, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Peter Pan, and a spoof, The Second City's Romeo and Juliet Musical. Call 312-595-5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.

Lovers of dramatic satire, improv, and sketch comedy can choose from three stages at the Second City theater, located in the Old Town Neighborhood at 1616 N. Wells St. Such comedy greats as John Belushi, Harold Ramis, and George Wendt made their debuts there before moving on to television and movie careers. Call 312-664-4032 or visit www.secondcity.com.

Time magazine last year crowned the Goodman Theatre, located in the Loop at 170 N. Dearborn St., the best regional theater in the nation. The Goodman is presenting the comedy Moonlight and Magnolias, which will show through June 13; and the dramatic play Electricidad, which will run June 19 through July 25.

It's not too late to catch John Mahoney, of the sitcom Frasier, performing in I Never Sang for My Father at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St. This show runs through June 27. Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune then runs from July 9 through Aug. 29. Call 312-335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.

Those craving experimental theater can check out the ongoing play Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind at the Neo-Futurists, 5153 N. Ashland Ave. Call 773-275-5255 or visit www.neofuturists.org.

Restaurants

Unlike travelers to New York, visitors to Chicago will be hard-pressed to find pizza sold by the slice. The city is known for its deep-dish pies -- no doubt an acquired taste -- which are served up at Pizzeria Uno restaurants located throughout the city.

Chicago also relishes its own unique recipe for hot dogs, which are dressed almost exclusively with mustard, onions, hot peppers, a dill-pepper spear, and onion salt and served on a poppyseed bun. The city's numerous Maxwell Street stands are as good as any for experiencing an original Chicago-style red hot.

Unfortunately, however, man cannot exist on pizza and hot dogs alone.

For those with hefty bank accounts and a willingness to splurge, Chicago offers a vast array of fine-dining options.

Charlie Trotter's, the city's most celebrated eatery, was voted America's best restaurant by Wine Spectator magazine in 2000. It's located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, Chicago's wealthiest. Call 773-248-6228 for reservations.

Le Colonial serves French-Vietnamese cuisine and boasts an elegant veranda overlooking exclusive boutiques in the Gold Coast neighborhood. It's located at 937 N. Rush St.; call 312-255-0088 for reservations.

Those seeking a happy medium between junk food and haute cuisine can look, broadly, to the neighborhoods for authentic cultural experiences in dining.

For instance, Latinos represent Chicago's fastest-growing immigrant population, as best evidenced by the Pilsen neighborhood, located directly west of the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Venture into one of dozens of tiny taquerias on West 18th Street and you'll see mariachi bands strolling and fruit vendors selling their wares from the backs of their trucks.

Any taco stand will do, but a longtime favorite sit-down Mexican restaurant among Chicagoans is Nuevo Leon, 1515 W. 18th St.

In the mood for dim sum? Walk through the Chinatown gate on Cermak Road and you'll have dozens of Chinese restaurants to select from. One such popular spot is Three Happiness, 209 W. Cermak Rd.

Have a hankering for gyros? Go to Greektown, which runs several blocks along South Halsted Street, directly west of downtown. The Parthenon, 314 S. Halsted St., always packs a crowd.

All you soul-food lovers out there can check out the Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop, which offers everything from oyster po' boy sandwiches with collard greens and black-eyed peas to peach-glazed chicken wings and fried green tomatoes. There are two locations: one at 5225 S. Harper Ave. in Hyde Park, and one at 825 Church St. on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston.

Shopping

The Magnificent Mile -- the northern part of Michigan Avenue between the Chicago River and Lake Michigan -- has long been considered the city's version of the Champs-Elysées. The wide boulevard is a shopper's paradise featuring everything from high-end boutiques to well-known department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales.

Those seeking a hipster scene for shopping, anchored by trendy cafés and funky shops selling used music and books, can migrate to the Bucktown and Wicker Park neighborhoods, centered at the six-corner intersection of Milwaukee, Damen, and North avenues.

Clubs and bars

A recent study showed that blues music remains Chicago's biggest draw for international tourists.

The House of Blues, located downtown at 329 S. Dearborn St., will surely attract its share of listeners for James Brown on June 11, Taj Mahal on June 25, and Johnny Winter on July 9. For a full listing of summer shows, call 312-923-2000 or visit www.hob.com.

To hear the blues in a setting that better resembles the old-time shanties where the art form originated, taxi south to the gritty Lee's Unleaded Blues, 7401 S. Chicago Ave. For listings, call 773-493-3477.

Also on the South Side is the incomparable New Apartment Lounge, 504 E. 75th St., where legendary jazz saxophonist Von Freeman takes the intimate foot-high stage every Tuesday night. Call 773-483-7728.

Jazz lovers may also ride the el north to the Green Mill, a fabled Art Deco lounge where mobster Al Capone once hung out with his cronies. Chicago trumpeter Malachi Thompson is scheduled to play a tribute to Miles Davis at the Mill on June 18 and 19. The club is located in the Uptown neighborhood at 4802 N. Broadway St. call 312-878-5552.

Chicago also boasts vibrant underground rock & roll and alternative-country scenes.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the modestly sized Metro has launched such acts as the Replacements, REM, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, and Liz Phair. This summer the MC5 will reunite there for a performance on June 11; Grant Lee Phillips plays June 17; and Spoon jams on June 25. Metro's located at 3730 N. Clark St.; call 773-549-0203 or visit www.metrochicago.com.

Fans of Bloodshot recording artists, known to play at Springfield's Underground City Tavern, can check out Chicago's coolest and quaintest joint for alt-country and honky-tonk music at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Rd. Bloodshot star Kelly Hogan plays every Thursday night, and a CD-release party for the new Wilco album is scheduled for June 21. Call 773-227-4433 or visit www.hideoutchicago.com.

Chicago has many great bars and taverns to appeal to those who are thirsty for a drink but would rather not yell over the wail of guitars. Emmitt's Pub, located just west of the Loop at 495 N. Milwaukee Ave., draws scores of film fans who recognize it from its cameo appearance in such movies as Backdraft and Ocean's 11.

The Billy Goat Tavern, located downtown at 430 N. Michigan Ave., remains a shrine to the great columnist Mike Royko and the legacy of Chicago journalism. The bar and grill was immortalized in a Saturday Night Live skit featuring John Belushi.

Transportation

Chicago's public-transportation system enables commuters to travel virtually anywhere in the city for pocket change by subway or bus. Taxis are available for those with extra spending money.

While in the Loop, be sure to check out the candy-red trolley cars, which offer free rides to popular downtown destinations such as the Magnificent Mile and Museum Campus. Visit online at www.chicagotrolley.com.

Having a car in the city has its ups and downs. A car makes it easier to explore different neighborhoods, but finding a parking space downtown can be a serious hassle.

Amtrak offers round-trip rates to Chicago from the Springfield station at Third and Washington streets for less than $40. For reservations, call 800-872-7245 or visit www.amtrak.com.

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