Photography by Beth Rooney

Adding flaming brandy to traditional saganaki created a Chi-Town tradition that has lasted 45 years while spreading across North America.

I had a brilliant idea.

My sons and I would try the flaming saganaki at every Greek restaurant in Chicago’s Greektown, all in one afternoon. “Think of it as one of those courses where you learn to dance the jitterbug or preserve jams in just three hours,” I say to them. “For the rest of your lives, you will be connoisseurs of a Chicago classic — Greek cheese flambeau.”

My sons were game.

“It’ll be a bonding experience,” says one, a recent college grad. “And binding,” adds my wife, a droll vegan.

And so it came to be that my two sons and I found ourselves in Greektown on a Wednesday afternoon for what we hoped would be an excellent adventure. Greektown, in my opinion, makes people happy.

To understand Greektown is to appreciate how waves of ethnic groups poured into Chicago — and still do to this day — and made the city their own by working absurdly­ hard and sticking together until they, or their children, could go it alone. The trick seems to be to roll with the punches.

LET THERE BE LIGHT: Greektown's Athenian Candle Company
Photography by Beth Rooney
For years when visiting Greektown, I assumed it had been there forever, or at least for a good century, which is a lot like forever in Chicago’s short history. I took for granted that this slight, four-block strip of Greek restaurants and shops — a grocery store, a bakery, a music store, a religious-candle store — along Halsted Street was once the very heart of a much larger Greek neighborhood. I imagined big Greek families living in the narrow wooden houses on the side streets, roasting whole lambs in their backyards on feast days, the children buying baklava from the baker on Saturday mornings.

Actually, this is what I thought until about yesterday.

“If you and I were sitting in the original Greektown at this very moment, we’d get hit by a car,” explains Chris Liakouras, who owns the oldest restaurant in ­Greektown, the 45-year-old Parthenon. “It’s an expressway­ now.”

Of course. What was I thinking? This is Chicago’s Near West Side, a 15-minute walk from the Loop. The Near West Side of yore, a roiling stew of new immigrant groups tended to by Jane Addams and Hull-House — the famous settlement house — is long gone. It gave way in the 1950s and ’60s to massive urban renewal in the form of the Eisenhower Expressway and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

As it turns out — and you can trust me on this because I looked it up at the National Hellenic Museum in, yes, Greektown — Chicago’s original Greek neighborhood, called the Delta, was centered a half mile or so farther south on Halsted. Settlement began in 1893 with thousands of young Greek men looking for work after their homeland declared bankruptcy. At the time, Chicago was the fastest-growing city in the United States, and the Delta became the country’s biggest Greektown. By 1930, estimates were that up to 18,000 of Chicago’s 30,000 Greek-­speaking people lived in the Delta.

When the Near West Side was “urban renewaled,” as some folks here still ruefully put it, a sizable part of the Greek population moved to the North Side and established an enclave near Lawrence and Western avenues. Other Greeks, daring various degrees of assimilation, moved to comfortable suburbs such as Lincolnwood, South Barrington and Palos Hills.