In the early 20th century this city in the Chicago Southland was the foremost commercial and residential center in the south of Cook County.
Nowadays, Blue Island, little more than 15 minutes from downtown Chicago, is a diverse and attractive community endowed with lots of beautiful architecture dating back a century or more.
You can shop locally in the downtown area, which has plenty of independent small businesses, from restaurants and bars to one-of-a-kind stores.
In the 21st century, Blue Island is connected to neighboring Chicago Southland communities by the 26-mile Cal-Sag Trail, along the historic shipping canal that runs through the center of the city.
1. Downtown Blue Island
Blue Island’s commercial core resonates with some 150 years of history. Along Western Avenue, and its old section on the south side of the Cal-Sag Channel, there’s an inviting array of locally owned businesses.
These range from Chicago-style eateries to a craft brewery, antiques center, bakeries, florist, pizzerias, taquerias and a choice of bars.
At the dawn of automobile travel, Western Avenue was part of the Dixie Highway, an early highway network that linked Chicago with Miami.
If you’re intrigued by the history of Blue Island you can download a list of 74 local landmarks from the city website and set off on a self-guided tour of these handsome old residential and commercial properties.
2. Memorial Park (Blue Island Park District)
The Blue Island Park District’s premier park is a short way northwest of downtown and has an entrance commanded by a LTV A-7 Corsair II light attack aircraft.
Bounded by leafy residential streets, Memorial Park has a pool (more later), a splash pad, children’s playground, picnic shelter, skate park, two baseball diamonds and a football field.
There’s a network of neat, paved paths down the park’s east side, which is particularly pretty in fall when the leaves change color.
In winter Memorial Park is still a popular family day out for its sledding hill and toboggan slide.
3. Cal-Sag Trail
When we put this list together, Blue Island was in the process of being connected to a walking and biking trail, stretching through the Chicago Southland, from Lemont, Illinois to the Chicago Lakefront and Indiana border.
With new sections opening every few months, the Cal-Sag Trail will eventually add up to 26 miles, hugging the banks of the Cal-Sag Channel.
A lengthy completed stretch cuts through Blue Island, crossing the channel at Division Street and running through downtown along Vermont Street.
At Lemont the trail merges with another long-distance route, on the Illinois and Michigan Canal Trail.
4. Blue Island Beer Company
On the historic Old Western Avenue, south of downtown Blue Island, there’s a thriving craft brewery with 12 different beers on tap.
Reviving a long brewing tradition in the city, Blue Island Beer Company has a foundation in the classic beer styles and uses that knowledge to branch out with surprising new creations.
At the time of writing, the taproom was pouring a Pilsner, a Hazy IPA, an American IPA, a pre-Prohibition-style Amber Ale, an Imperial Milk Stout and a German-style Kölsch Ale, to list a small handful.
You can fill growlers, or buy cans or bottles to go. Food-wise, Blue Island Beer Company has a delivery agreement with the nearby bar & grill, Natural Law, or you can bring something from one of Blue Island’s many great food spots.
5. The Park at York & Western
Right in downtown Blue Island you’ll find a cute little pocket park with benches, picnic tables and a gazebo.
Close to the popular T & G Gyros, as well as Iversen’s Bakery and De Mar’s Coffee Shop, this is a handy place to have a picnic in the summer.
On Mondays, mid-June through September, the Park at York & Western is also the setting for Blue Island’s farmers’ market, selling farm-fresh seasonal produce from the region.
On the Western Avenue side of the park there’s an information board explaining the interesting history of the Dixie Highway.
6. St. Donatus Feast & Carnival
An annual tradition for more than 110 years, the Church of St. Donatus hosts a lively five-day festival every August, celebrating the feast of the namesake saint.
This is one of the last great church fests in the Chicago area, and is particularly well-known for its excellent food.
There’s Italian beef and sausage, fried dough, wings, clams, delicious pizza, Italian ice and Mexican bites.
Usually, there’s a procession on the Sunday, as well as carnival rides, games, bingo and a packed lineup of live music across all five days.
7. Three Sisters Antique Mall
One of the most imposing structures downtown is the Woolworth Building, which dates to 1918 during Blue Island’s heyday and has Spanish Revival-style mouldings on its frieze.
There was a Woolworth’s on the first floor until 1993, while the second floor was occupied by the Blue Island Elks, as well as Blue Island Specialty Company (est. 1898), a world-renowned dental equipment manufacturer.
Today the building is home to a cavernous, multi-dealer antiques mall, regarded as the best of its kind in the Chicago Southland.
This is the kind of place where you can lose track of time browsing furniture, vintage toys, books, clothing, collectibles and all kinds of decorative arts.
8. Whistler Woods Forest Preserve
On the south bank of the Little Calumet River, directly east of Blue Island is a beautiful patch of woodland growing mature oaks that are up to 300 years old.
There are two picnic groves at Whistler Woods Forest Preserve, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities for birding at this riverside habitat.
You can also get onto the Major Taylor Tail here, which is a 7.6-mile multi-use rail trail, named for Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor (1878-1932) the record-breaking African American pro cyclist.
This path cuts through the cityscape on Chicago’s southwest side, as far as Dan Ryan Woods.
9. Eagle’s Bowling Lanes
Another grand building downtown continues to be the lodge for the Blue Island chapter of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, founded in 1906.
Inside is an intimate and welcoming bowling alley for a cozy game with friends. As an antidote to enormous and faceless alleys, there are just six lanes here, accompanied by a bar area for grownups.
Prices for games, drinks and bites (pizza, popcorn and more) are very reasonable, and on weekend evenings the alley stays open late.
10. Hart Park
This park in the north of Blue Island is dominated by one of the most popular baseball/softball stadiums in the Chicago Southland, hosting men’s and women’s league games and tournaments, as well as programs like the White Sox Amateur City Elite.
Established by the City of Blue Island, the stadium dates back to 1939 and was purchased by the Blue Island Park District in 1963 and named after a mayor.
There’s a concession stand here, as well as a children’s playlot and a concrete recreation area. In winter this is the site for the Blue Island Ice Rink.
11. The Meadows Golf Club
On Blue Island’s northwest shoulder is a vast green area that continues for miles, occupied by parks, cemeteries and sports facilities like this public golf course.
Opened in 1994, the Meadows Golf Club is an 18-hole par 71, measuring 6,549 from the tips. On gently undulating terrain, the course has a slope rating of 121, and is a great introduction to the sport if you’re a newcomer.
Rates are also reasonable, especially for the Chicago area, at under $40 when we wrote this article. There’s a driving range at the course if you need to get some practice in before your round.
12. T & G Gyros
If you’re craving Chicago-style comfort food you won’t have to search long, as there’s a cherished independent spot downtown on South Western Avenue.
T & G Gyros has been in business for decades, making regional favorites like gyros of course, but also Italian beef, Polish sausage, combos and hot dogs.
But maybe the most famous specialty here is the Big Baby double cheeseburger, customized exactly how you want it.
Also on the menu you’ve got rib-eye steak, fish sandwiches, spicy wings, salads, lemonade, malts and shakes.
13. In the Game, Hollywood Park
Close by at the Rivercrest Shopping Center is a classic family entertainment center, packing a slew of indoor and outdoor attractions onto one site.
Newly remodeled, In the Game offers go-karts, mini golf, mini bowling, indoor bumper cars, an arcade, a ropes course for wee ones, a Typhoon motion simulator, virtual reality games, a children’s roller coaster and a giant slider.
The restaurant at In the Game serves only certified Animal Welfare Approved products, free of antibiotics and hormones, and there’s a pouring craft beers and fancy cocktails.
14. Memorial Park Pool
A fine, not to mention inexpensive, way to beat the heat in summer is this public outdoor aquatic center at Memorial Park.
The large, curving pool here has three distinct areas, for wading/leisure, lap swimming and for diving at the deep end.
This is a no-frills place to swim, and when we put this list together the park district had recently announced some upcoming improvements.
The pool is open throughout the summer, from 12 pm to 5 pm, and then from 6 pm to 8:30 pm. Parents here with children can rent a sun lounger for a small fee.
15. Centennial Park
Dating back to 1936, this park in the east of Blue Island is roughly parallel to I-57, though you wouldn’t know the highway is there as it sits behind a buffer of residential buildings and trees.
Centennial Park is a spot for active recreation, home to no fewer than four baseball/softball diamonds.
This is a great place to bring children, with a large, fenced playground on the southwest corner, close to a picnic shelter, and all in the shade of some tall old trees.
There’s a walking path winding through the park that has been repaved in the last couple of years.