An industrial city in Northwest Indiana, East Chicago is commanded by the immense Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal, linking the Grand Calumet River with Lake Michigan.
Since the arrival of the Inland Steel Corporation in 1903, the local economy has been driven by the steel industry, although the crisis of 1974-1986 led to a sharp decline in East Chicago’s population.
The city has large Hispanic and Polish communities, and this shines through in the appetizing choice of restaurants, for authentic cuisine, whether you’re up for pierogi, enchiladas or Puerto Rican fried plantain.
The Marina district next to the Ameristar Casino has received a lot of love in recent years, with a new walkway and improved facilities at Jeorse Park Beach.
1. Jeorse Park Beach
Often overlooked in favor of beaches in neighboring communities, East Chicago has an attractive piece of lakefront with a sandy beach and an array of amenities around it.
Like the marina next door, Jeorse Park has been upgraded recently. Next to the beach are gazebos, a playground and a splash pad popular with families.
In August the park is the setting for Fusic Fest, a three-day music extravaganza catering to East Chicago’s diverse community.
The marina next door is home to H2Oh Water Rentals, offering a range of craft including paddle boats and waverunners in the summer.
2. Big Frank’s Sausage
East Chicago and neighboring South Shore communities have had a strong Polish presence going back more than a century.
This is obvious next door in Whiting, which even celebrates a festival for pierogi, which we’ll talk about later.
Close to East Chicago’s South Shore Line station is arguably the best spot for Polish food in the city. As you can tell from the name, Big Frank’s Sausage specializes in sandwiches with Polish sausage (add onions and sauerkraut), Italian sausage, as well as roast beef and meatballs.
But you can also get some great Polish options like pierogi, crispy potato pancakes, dedicated plates for Warsaw, Krakow and Zakopane.
A real favorite is golabki, cabbage stuffed with beef, pork and rice, and covered in tomato sauce.
3. East Chicago Marina
At the north end of Jeorse Park Beach is an important marina for the region, opened in 1987 and accommodating boats up to 60 ft.
This is the anchor for an entire district that has received a lot of investment in the last decade.
Part of that is the multimillion-dollar Harborwalk Project, improving the waterside paths for relaxing strolls by the lake.
In summer, come to H2Oh Water Rentals for kayaks, paddleboards, paddle boats and waverunners, while there’s a handful of fishing charters launching from here.
Also based at the marina are the Boardwalk Grille & Banquet Center, the Indiana Harbor Yacht Club and Ameristar East Chicago.
4. Marktown Historic District
An island surrounded by industry, Marktown is a remarkable holdover from the Progressive Era on the west side of East Chicago.
This is a company town from 1917, built on former marshland to provide housing for workers for the Mark Manufacturing Company, involved in the local steel industry.
Marktown has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975, and looks like nowhere else in the region.
For one thing, this is the only place in North America where cars park on the sidewalks, while the dense layout was designed to foster a community atmosphere.
Due to World War I, only 10% of the planned community was completed, and this has been under threat ever since it was built.
The houses are in varying condition, and some have been purchased by BP, which runs the Whiting Factory that looms over the neighborhood to the west.
5. Whihala Beach
For an alternative beach you can make the short trip around the shoreline to Whiting. Whihala Beach here is monitored by lifeguards Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day and is complemented by features like sand volleyball courts, a boat launch, a grilling area and food concessions.
Something kids are sure to love is the Whoa Zone, an inflatable floating adventure park, open in the summer. Just beside the beach is Whiting Lakefront Park, with a variety of other amenities from a fishing pier to a bike trail, tennis courts and a baseball diamond.
The park is also a stopover for migrating birds, and has set up birdhouses for purple martins, which breed here in the summer.
6. Wolf Lake Memorial Park
Little more than five minutes from East Chicago is an 804-acre lake straddling the Indiana and Illinois state line.
In ecological terms Wolf Lake is one of the most important sites in the Chicago area, despite being surrounded by industry for much of the last 150 years.
The rejuvenation of the lake has been spectacular, and this is now a recreation hotspot for the area. In the summer you can rent canoes, kayaks and paddleboards for an hour-long adventure on the water.
Also on the east shore is the Wolf Lake Aquatic Play Center, a large, fun-packed splash pad for kids aged 12 and under.
A pedestrian trail leads from the park to the Hammond Lakefront, with all kinds of activities available at the marina and lifeguards patrolling the beach from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.
7. El Michoacano
East Chicago’s significant Hispanic population makes the city a great place to sample authentic Latin American food, with a wide variety of regional cuisines present.
For genuine Mexican food, head to El Michoacano, a bilingual, family-run eatery at 2003 Broadway Street.
This homey and unpretentious spot is known for its generous portions and attentive service, and has earned a big following for its western Mexican dishes.
Some picks include the enchiladas, their mole sauce, caldo de res/pollo (beef or chicken soup), chilaquiles for breakfast and their homemade horchata and pineapple lemonade.
8. Ameristar Casino East Chicago
Now operated by Penn National Gaming, there’s a giant riverboat casino by the marina on East Chicago’s waterfront.
This opened in 1997 and boasts more than 70,000 square feet of casino floor on four playing levels.
You’ve got more than 1,700 slots and video poker games, as well as 77 table games including craps, roulette and blackjack, with an entire room devoted to baccarat.
With an impressive collection of memorabilia, the Stadium Sports Bar & Grill has more than 30 screens and is just the place to catch the big game or watch a classic from years gone by.
9. Mascot Hall of Fame
Next door in Whiting is an interactive children’s museum that opened in 2018. As an organization, the Mascot Hall of Fame goes back to 2005, inducting famous mascots from college and professional sports via a complex nomination and voting process.
When we wrote this article there had been 20 inductees, among them Tommy the Hawk of the Chicago Blackhawks and the Chicago Bulls’ Benny the Bull.
The museum has an educational element, with activities and displays that incorporate S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math).
So, along those lines, the “Department of Furry Arts” lets kids design and build their own mascot, while “ Science of Silliness” explores the data behind mascot performance and informs children about healthy lifestyle choices.
Another star of the local food scene is Tania’s, a Latin American restaurant that opened in 2015. The emphasis here is on Puerto Rican specialties, some of which can also be found around the Caribbean and parts of South America.
Among the must-tries are the plantain dishes like mofongo (fried plantains that come with crispy pork, slow-roasted pork or shrimp), jibarito (fried plantain sandwich) and tostones (twice-fried plantains).
Newcomers to Puerto Rican cuisine have to try Tania’s arroz con gandules, a national rice dish with pigeon peas and pork. Also be sure to start with apps like papas rellenas (beef croquettes) and pastelillos, pastry pockets similar to empanadas.
11. MacArthur Golf Course
Run by the East Chicago Parks & Recreation Department is a 9-hole golf course that doubles as a family attraction.
The executive course here is well maintained, and as well as being a good introduction to the sport is a fine place for experienced golfers to work on their iron play and putting. When we wrote this list, non-residents could play 18 holes for just $12, any day of the week.
The main course is accompanied by a pirate-themed miniature golf course, ideal for family outings and dates. Then there’s a set of batting cages, with helmet and bat rental included in the fee.
12. Gibson Woods Nature Preserve
South of East Chicago and just across the Grand Calumet River is another expanse of nature preserving a rare dune and swale ecosystem dominated by black oak savanna.
The Gibson Woods Nature Preserve is more than 130 acres, with 3.5 miles trails ushering you over the peaks and then down through the wet swales along boardwalks.
For a bit more context you can visit the Gibson Woods Environmental Awareness Center, which has compelling exhibits about the preserve’s dune ecosystem, as well as live animal exhibits with amphibians and reptiles.
13. Pierogi Fest
Perhaps the area’s biggest annual event takes place less than ten minutes away in Whiting every July and attracts as many as 300,000 people.
A celebration of that much-loved Polish dumpling, Pierogi Fest features live music, a parade, carnival rides and food booths offering other specialties from the region like kielbasa, sauerkraut and paczki pastries.
This is an event that doesn’t take itself too seriously, as you’ll tell from the Polka Parade, with women dressed up in babushkas and housecoats like their grandmothers, and a lawnmower brigade proudly wearing socks and sandals.
An important character amid all this is Miss Paczki, literally dressed like a deep-fried pastry, along with Mr. Pierogi, star of a songfest performing food-related parodies of famous songs.
14. Lost Marsh Golf Course
Neighboring Wolf Lake and sitting on the south shore of Lake George is another highly-rated public golf facility. Lost Marsh Golf Course is loved for its lush fairways and fast greens, blending links and parkland style designs.
Water is a big part of the challenge, particularly on the lakeside 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 10th and 11th. Of these, the tricky 3rd and 4th holes present some fun risk-reward situations.
There are also constant views of the Chicago skyline in the distance. Lost Marsh has a 9-hole executive course, ideal for less experienced players, as well as a driving range and restaurant.
15. Fishing Charters
You can use East Chicago Marina as the base for a fishing expedition on Lake Michigan, with several charter companies launching from this location.
The season for enormous chinook salmon on Lake Michigan gets underway around early-June and peaks in July and August, while other species regularly caught in these waters are steelhead trout, lake trout and largemouth bass.
Working out of Portage and East Chicago, Brother Nature Fishing Adventures caters to groups of 1 to 4 people, March through September, providing tackle and also cleaning fish.