“An American Bar & Grill in the Heart of Little Italy”
As a beacon in the night to thirsty UIC students and other random elements in the area, Hawkeye’s Bar & Grill is the anchor of nightlife in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood. By day and early evening, Hawkeye’s offers a larger than usual array of reasonably priced, Bennigan’s inspired food in a casual atmosphere while Chicago sports takes center stage on the entertainment system. By night, UIC students mix with neighborhood denizens, and listen to the last 15 years of Top 40 when Hawkeye’s metamorphasizes rather Kafka-like from a sports bar into a dance club ala Hangge Uppe’s, Bootlegger’s, and Shenanigan’s. Whatever time of day it is, Hawkeye’s is the place to go for drinks in Little Italy.
Since 1987, Hawkeye’s has been located at the west end of Little Italy, just before Ashland and at the corner of Taylor Street and Laflin Avenue, housed within a three-story red brick building. If you’re coming from Tuscany, Mia Francesca or elsewhere to the east, be sure to drive over to Hawkeye’s as you don’t want to walk past the bombed out, concentration camp-like public housing projects located smack-dab in the middle of Little Italy. Fortunately, the city is slowly vacating them and have plans to tear them down, as the projects almost destroyed this charming neighborhood with its classic Chicago storefronts, Italian ice stands and old-fashioned street lights. Unfortunately, you still can’t make a U-turn on Taylor – a $125 lesson that I learned one winter’s eve… If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also get to Hawekeye’s and Little Italy by taking the Blue Line El towards Forest Park and exit at Racine, where you’ll be greeted by a welcoming “Tutto Bene” sign (a familiar greeting in Italian). However you go, once you’ve spotted the forest green awnings with Hawkeye’s scripted upon them in white lettering, you’re there.
As you enter the premises, you’ll need to have your ID ready as the two doormen wearing headsets, juxtaposed against photographs of old Chicago and a mounted stag’s head, let no one go by without being carded due to Hawkeye’s proximity to the University of Illinois at Chicago campus and its large underage population. The next challenge for patrons over 21 is to put your license away while navigating past the beer tub, a huge gumball machine, and a glass case filled with Hawkeye’s t-shirts and other merchandise. You’ll then find the main barroom of Hawkeye’s before you in all its black & white linoleum, mirrored and neon beer sign splendor. A series of round wooden columns holds up the green painted drop ceiling and televisions can be found in every corner. A decent selection of primarily domestic beer and sparkling wine is continuously doled out from a large, rectangular wooden bar that dominates the center of the room. Suspended stained glass and wooden shelving holds a plethora of liquor next to a “Venn Ct.” street sign and waitresses perpetually appear upon the elevated waitress stand to place orders for customers seated at cocktail tables along the west side of the room in front of windows overlooking Laflin Ave and in the Hawkeye’s sidewalk café, featured in warmer months. A wood-paneled eastern wall, choc-a-bloc with Blackhawks and Bulls photos – some with players like Michael Jordan posing with owner Edward Claussen, separates the main bar from a carpeted restaurant-like room that offers additional seating amongst green-painted walls and more wood paneling. When the need strikes, an ATM and the Golden Tee can be found towards the front of the room and the bathrooms are downstairs.
At the north end of the bar, upon the elevated stage next to the DJ booth, an eclectic crowd of UIC students, Bulls, Blackhawk and Bears fans taking advantage of the $4 first come, first serve bus service to the nearby United Center and Soldier Field (and White Sox fans taking the warm weather bus on Friday and Saturday nights to Comiskey Park), the occasional real Blackhawk like Jeremy Roenick when he was in town, those waiting for a table at Rosebud across the street, Italian and Latino neighborhood types, medical personnel from Rush-Presbyterian and UIC hospitals, Chicago Police and Fire training academy cadets, and suburbanites flail wildly to “cheezola music,” as described by the Official Chicago Bar Guide (2001). Such auditory fare begins at 10:30 p.m., from Thursday through Sunday, and includes songs like the following I heard there one night: Right Said Fred’s I’m Too Sexy (10 years after it was forgotten by the great unwashed), Missy Elliott’s Get Your Freak On, and that damned “Turn to the Left” song that I could have done a better version of on a $50 keyboard. At other times, you’ll find whatever Chicago sports team happens to be playing broadcast on the big screen and elsewhere around the room. For the few minutes during the year when no Chicago team is playing, patrons yuk it up to blooper reels.
The food at Hawkeye’s is served until 11:00 p.m., and consists of a selection that would compete with any Bennigan’s, Applebees, TGI Friday, Houlihan’s, Ruby Tuesday, and any other restaurant that serves a bloomin’ onion. In addition to the usual array of fried munchies, Hawkeye’s features a good selection of salads, very large burgers, sandwiches, and pizza. Specialties include Caribbean Jerk Chicken Salad, stuffed peppers, “Loretta’s Famous Meatloaf”, catfish, two-for-one breakfast every Friday, and 10¢ wings after 3:00 p.m. on Mondays. Nothing at Hawkeye’s will set you back more than $5 to $15 (sans drinks of course). It’s too bad the service isn’t as complete as the menu, but $1.75 Amstel Lights and $1.50 domestic pitchers for students showing their ID more than compensates.
Even though there are a few other saloons nearby like the Illinois Bar & Grill, one location of the Bar Louie chain and even a decent spot for cocktails within Tufano’s, I had never really had drinks in Little Italy. As such, there were many firsts when I stopped by Hawkeye’s: I drank pints of Stella Artois for $2.75 served in a full-size pint glass, I saw a neon WCKG 105.9 sign above the dance floor (even though music is quite different), and I encountered a metal tub with only Rolling Rock in it (the Local Option would be proud). And although Hawkeye’s can be a good place to pick up inebriated college students, it is not a good place to take a date after a nice Italian meal elsewhere. Fights are par for the course, as are guys that won’t hesitate to try to pick up your girlfriend even if you’re standing there (yes, I speak from personal experience).
Although blissfully devoid of pretension, the Bennigan’s – club hybrid is really more of a suburban thing or what you’ll find on Division, where Ed Claussen cut his teeth. Given its somewhat secluded location, Little Italy itself has a somewhat suburban feel, particularly with all the new condos going in, and Hawkeye’s seems to fit in with that just fine. That, combined with its allure to college students, makes Hawkeye’s reminiscent of other Chicago college pub classics like Kelly’s Pub (DePaul), Hamilton’s Pub (Loyola) and Tommy Nevin’s in Evanston (Northwestern). Regarding the name, I’m sure Alan Alda’s character from M*A*S*H character would probably stop in on shore leave but might wouldn’t make Hawkeye’s his local. For more information, check out the Hawkeye’s website. Ciao belle.
Photograph taken by Carla G. Surratt of Picturing Chicago