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Holidays in the US: The lights are back on in Chicago – and deep dish pizzas and blues music await

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Saul Bellow had a funny relationship with Chicago. The Nobel and Pulitzer-winning author seemed to love the Midwestern city as much as he loathe it – “in Chicago, you become a connoisseur of near-nothingness.”

But Bellow, who died in 2005, also said he’s never seen life so bright and vibrant as in Humboldt Park, near where he grew up. Many of the city’s nearly three million residents might agree with the latter.

Chicago, which faces Lake Michigan, has been described as having a chip on his shoulder. But I get the feeling of irreverence, a joy of having the last laugh at Californians and New Yorkers who tend to look their noses at the rest of the country.

Hugo Brown of the Daily Mail says Lake Chicago’s shores were lined with runners and cyclists enjoying the last breath of tolerable weather

CHICAGO .’S HOTTEST TICKETS

THE RICHE

Get the best view of the city from the 103rd floor of Willis Tower. The Ledge’s glass boxes extend from the Skydeck, and a fifth will soon open. (theskydeck.com)

THE MAGICAL LOUNGE

A speakeasy meets magical theater, this Andersonville spot combines tableside performances with dinner. Book at chicagomagiclounge.com.

MUSEUM OF ILLUSIONS

Open six days before the first shutdown, this is a great place to while away a few hours and check out some crazy exhibits and illusions. (museumofillusions.com)

ART INSTITUTE

The showpiece of the exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago by Barbara Kruger is titled ‘Thinking of you. I mean myself. I mean you’. (artic.edu)

And now the lights are on in the city again. The theaters in the center are crowded and people are out late because the L train rattles overhead. The 18-mile Lakefront Trail is once again dotted with runners and cyclists enjoying the last breath of tolerable weather.

In The Dearborn, Amy Lawless, who runs the restaurant with her sister Clodagh (they moved here from Galway 22 years ago), says that a few nights ago, for the first time in 18 months, she saw lines of people standing until ten feet deep at the bar during the pre-theatre rush.

But the disruption caused by Covid is nothing compared to that after the 1871 fire that rocked the downtown area, as I learn from guide Adrianne about the CAFC River Cruise, an architectural boat trip.

The oldest building we see dates back to 1898, around the time Chicago hoped to become the “Paris of the Prairie.”

The Wrigley and Tribune buildings (neither of which are houses anymore) are the twin peaks that start the tour. Behind me I hear a couple asking aloud why the Tribune needed such a large building: “Probably from when people bought newspapers” is the conclusion one of them draws.

Floating down the river, we pass sleek Art Deco towers, brash postmodernism and gleaming late modernism. This is the way to see the city.

It also gives me a different view of The Pendry, a 364-room hotel that opens in the summer and where I stay. The 1929 Art Deco building was finished with black granite, green terracotta and gold leaf to resemble a champagne bottle.

The next day, on a food tour of the West Loop neighborhood, my guide David mentions the fire again and says the city is proud of its renaissance. That’s why the local soccer team is called Chicago Fire.

Many of us are critical of our metropolitan environment, but David is one of the many Chicagoans I meet who almost feel honored to live here, and his in-depth knowledge reflects that. He explains to me the importance of the big three: deep-dish pizza, Italian beef sandwiches, and hot dogs.

West Loop is full of restaurants, thanks in part to Oprah Winfrey who opened her studio here in 1988. I taste meatballs from Nonna’s, a Do-Rite donut, caramelized chicken dumplings (Urbanbelly) and some delicate chocolates (Bad Bach). But most importantly, pizza from Bonci’s – not deep dish but Roman style, twice cooked, crispy – the best I’ve ever tasted.

On another night in the same neighborhood, I dine at Rose Mary, which serves small plates (albeit a Chicago small one). It’s Italian-Croatian – rich and smart – that kind of uniquely American combination.

Every neighborhood has a purpose – West Loop for restaurants; Pilsen has a large Mexican community; and Andersonville was originally Swedish. The latter has a communal and small-town feel and is popular with the LGBTQ+ community.

One night I go to Buddy Guy’s Legends blues bar, where the man himself who inspired the Rolling Stones (essentially the band copied Chicago’s style of electric guitar blues) is giving a performance.

He does a set somewhere between comedy and blues, and ad-libs singing “I’m a king bee” and “I got a woman who’s big and fat” – warning us that this isn’t music for the radio anymore.

Pizza perfection: Hugo went on a food tour of the West Loop neighborhood and had one of the best pizzas he's ever tasted (stock image)

Pizza perfection: Hugo went on a food tour of the West Loop neighborhood and had one of the best pizzas he’s ever tasted (stock image)

West Loop is full of restaurants, thanks in part to Oprah Winfrey who opened her studio here in 1988

West Loop is full of restaurants, thanks in part to Oprah Winfrey who opened her studio here in 1988

Comedy club The Second City is also worth a visit, with its oft-cited alumni – Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Catherine O’Hara. Improvisation can be hit and miss, but that’s certainly the nature of the game.

An afternoon should be spent strolling around the $500 million Millennium Park, seeing the optical magic that makes Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (The Bean) so popular, and the Art Institute.

There’s a notable Barbara Kruger exhibit, but the most famous painting here is probably Grant Wood’s American Gothic (although I prefer its neighbor The Artist Looks At Nature by Charles Sheeler).

Rock on!  Hugo saw Buddy Guy, who inspired the Rolling Stones, perform at his popular blues bar Legends

Rock on! Hugo saw Buddy Guy, who inspired the Rolling Stones, perform at his popular blues bar Legends

An afternoon should be spent walking the $500 million Millennium Park, Hugo says.  Pictured is the park's Cloud Gate sculpture

An afternoon should be spent walking the $500 million Millennium Park, Hugo says. Pictured is the park’s Cloud Gate sculpture

To me, American Gothic in its rigor seems to capture the savage struggle of what it meant to live on the frontier during the march west. And that’s why there’s an innate comfort in the Midwest – the name distances itself from the border, and this is supported by the authenticity of the residents.

On my last afternoon, after three days of atmospheric snow, wind and thick clouds, the sun comes out. Downtown sparkles and Lake Michigan reveals its true blue.

Saul Bellow’s comment now makes more sense to me. In the sunlight, life in Chicago seems a little brighter. And if there’s one thing we can learn from the generosity here and the wholesome pride of Chicago, it’s that we should all rethink the way we view our own hometowns and perhaps appreciate them more.

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