This village in the Northwestern Suburbs is a 25-minute Metra ride from Chicago Union Station. Elmwood Park got its name from a park with old-growth elm trees visited by Chicagoans at the turn of the 20th century.
The village has long been noted for its excellent food. Several restaurants, particularly along North Avenue, have been in business since the 1930s and 40s.
Elmwood Park is rightly proud of these local icons, all with deep ties to their community, and celebrates them with a four-day festival, Taste of Elmwood, every August.
For culture, Oak Park borders the village to the south and was the place where Frank Lloyd Wright spent the first 20 years of his career and built the UNESCO-listed Unity Temple, considered the first truly Modern building.
1. Taste of Elmwood Park
Given Elmwood Park’s culinary riches it’s only right that the village’s signature event should be food related.
Usually falling on the first weekend in August and taking place at Central Park by the Metra station, Taste of Elmwood Park is a four-day blowout showcasing the multitude of cuisines available locally.
What makes the festival so special is that all of the top local eateries participate, so there’s no better way to sample the Chicago classics, Italian, Cuban, Chinese, Mexican, BBQ and gyros that put Elmwood Park on the map.
There are more than 20 different vendors, as well as activities for kids, live music, giant jenga, yoga in the park and a bocce ball tournament.
2. North Avenue
Arrow straight, North Avenue (IL 64) marks Elmwood Park’s southern boundary on its long east to west journey from Old Town, Chicago to the Mississippi River.
The road has a different character depending where you are. In neighboring Melrose Park for example North Avenue is a shopping corridor, but in Elmwood Park the road has an enticing lineup of mostly independent eateries.
There are three stalwarts that we’ll visit on this list, but fronting the Des Plaines River at the west end is Russell’s Barbecue, making sandwiches and slaw with the same recipes as when the restaurant opened in 1930.
3. Johnnie’s Beef
This Chicago street food Mecca is in an assuming one-story building on North Avenue, and often has a line out the door.
With the same owner since 1961 Johnnie’s Beef offers a simple menu, specializing, as you can imagine, in Italian Beef and sausage sandwiches.
For both in one bun, order a combo. If you want the sandwich au jus you can ask for it “juicy”, and of course you can order the typical embellishments, giardiniera and/or sweet peppers.
There are pepper and egg sandwiches on Fridays only, and the fitting accompaniment is an indulgent serving of Italian lemon ice, with just enough citrus to cut through that delicious grease.
4. Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio
South of North Avenue, Oak Park has the highest concentration of architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) of any place in the world.
Wright moved to Oak Park in the 1880s and established his own practice in 1893, gradually developing his signature Prairie School style.
During his time in Oak Park he built and then reworked a house and studio where he lived with his family until 1909.
A National Historic Landmark, this restored building gives a wonderful insight into Wright’s family life and progress as an architect as he experimented with the ideas that would shape the rest of his career.
The interior is remarkably open, reflecting Wright’s growing preference for simplicity. No room sums this up better than the children’s playroom, with its airy barrel vault, illuminated at the apex by a skylight.
5. Unity Temple Oak Park
After the previous Universitarian Universalist Church in Oak Park burnt down, Wright was commissioned to design a new structure for the congregation, of which he was a member.
Built from 1905 to 1908, the Unity Temple has been hailed as the first truly Modern building. The cubelike, reinforced concrete facade belies a warm and comforting interior.
This is epitomized by the sanctuary, drenched with light from the clerestory and the grid of lights in the ceiling coffers. Wright used amber stained glass for these windows, to create the quality of sunlight filling the room, regardless of the weather outside.
6. Oak Park Walking Tour
Spending 20 years of his nascent career in Oak Park, Wright has left an astonishing legacy in the village that can best be understood on a walking tour. This can be done in a group with a guide from the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust.
Setting off from the Home and Studio, the Wright in the Neighborhood tour shows you to local landmarks like the Nathan Moore House (1895), Arthur Heurtley House (1902) and Laura Gale House (1909), among several others, in the company of a knowledgeable guide.
The trust also offers the seasonal tours, Wright Around Oak Park and Pedal Oak Park (bring your own bike, or one can be borrowed from the trust.
With a little planning you can appreciate the village’s architectural splendor on a self-guided visit, with several downloadable maps of the highlights online.
7. New Star Restaurant
Tommy Moy established this beloved Chinese Restaurant in 1954 and steered the ship for decades before a well-earned retirement in 2014.
New Star Restaurant has moved with the times, and now has a pan-Asian feel, with sushi and Thai dishes on the menu to go with time-honored Chinese favorites.
Inside there’s a room with conventional dining and a room with a hibachi grill. Highly skilled, the chefs working the grill are genial and keen to put on a show, and it’s always a fun experience, especially if you go in a group.
New Star Restaurant has a reputation for great service, with little touches like hot towels and toys to keep restless children entertained.
8. Des Plaines River Trail
The slow-flowing Des Plaines River rises in Kenosha County Wisconsin and travels south 133 miles through the Chicago suburbs to meet the Kankakee and form the Illinois River.
On its way through Lake and Cook counties the river flows through a long succession of preserves, with floodplain forest, prairie and oak-hickory woodland.
There are 12 in Cook County alone, and you can visit them along the Des Plaines River Trail which follows the river from the Wisconsin border in Russell.
The southern trailhead can be found at Sunset Bridge Meadow, right next to Elmwood Park in River Grove. From here you can walk or ride north through nature for miles, and will rarely have to cross a road.
There are countless picnic groves along the route, and locally the trail takes you close to Gene & Jude’s, a famous hot dog stand open since 1946.
9. Evans Field
You can escape the city at a patchwork of adjacent Cook County forest preserves on the river along Elmwood Park’s western flank.
Evans Field gives way to Jerome Huppert Woods, which lines the heavily wooded east bank of the river, while on the opposite bank is Sunset Bridge Meadow, where you’ll find another trailhead for the Des Plaines River Trail.
The access road off Thatcher Avenue takes you through the woods to an open grassy space, with a picnic shelter and a backdrop of woods with dense undergrowth.
10. Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets
Yet another enduring business in Elmwood Park is Angelo Caputo’s, the flagship for a multi-award winning Italian grocery store chain with seven locations in Chicagoland.
The founder, Angelo Caputo (1932-2021), arrived in the United States as a teenager and set up what would become a little empire in Elmwood Park in 1958. The chain is very much in the family, and Caputo’s daughter is the company president.
Come for great fresh produce, meats and hard-to-find Italian ingredients, while the deli counter has imported cheeses, cold meats and freshly made dishes. The bakery makes traditional Italian treats, from cannoli to tiramisu.
11. Cernan Earth & Space Center
The leafy campus of Triton College, a prominent two-year school, is just across the Des Plaines River from Elmwood Park.
The main reason to keep the college in your plans is for its planetarium complex, named in honor of Apollo astronaut and the most recent man to leave footprints on the moon, Eugene Cernan (1934-2017), who donated some spaceflight memorabilia to the college.
With a 44-foot dome and a capacity for 93 spectators, the planetarium opened in 1974 and was fitted with a new fulldome projector in 2015. Gene Cernan’s artifacts are on show in the lobby, along with other informative exhibits.
You can come to see a wide variety of planetarium shows, and check out the monthly Skywatch program, explaining the latest news in the world of space science and astronomy.
12. Jim & Pete’s
Even by Elmwood Park standards this North Avenue restaurant has been around a long time. Jim & Pete’s goes all the way back to 1941 and was founded as a counter-service pizza joint by Jim Sorce Sr., and his brother-in-law Pete Pizo.
The restaurant bounced around several locations, from Humboldt Park to River Forest, before settling at Elmwood Park.
A far cry from those early days as a stand, Jim & Pete’s is a “polished casual” kind of place, insisting on the best and freshest ingredients, delivered daily.
A few signatures need to be tried, like the meatballs, made to a family recipe, the white clam linguine and of course the pizza, with a recipe from 1941.
13. Wonder Works Children’s Museum
Slightly further east on North Avenue there’s a hands-on children’s museum (0-8 years), founded in 2002 and run by a non-profit.
Wonder Works has been given a facelift in the last couple of years, and one of the big changes is an expanded outdoor nature learning area, known as the Becky Boyce Nature Play Space, helping to foster a generation of environmental stewards.
Inside are fun experiential exhibits, allowing kids to role-play professions, make a TV show, collaborate on a mini construction project, clamber over a safe indoor playground and make their own artistic masterpiece.
14. Trailside Museum of Natural History
This free museum is on the edge of Thatcher Woods, another Cook County forest preserve, no more than five minutes southwest of Elmwood Park.
Established in 1931, the Trailside Museum is housed in an elegant Victorian mansion dating to the 1870s. Inside you can get to know the natural history of the Des Plaines River and Northeast Illinois, and get up close to some of the region’s native animals in terrariums.
On the grounds is a pond and stunning wildflower gardens, while you can join trails to discover the floodplain forest and oak woodlands of Thatcher Woods to the north.
The Trailside Museum offers tons of public programs, from talks to paddles in the pond to walks identifying flowers, trees, birds, fungi and more.
15. Indian Boundary Golf Course
One of six golf courses run by the Forest Preserves of Cook county, Indian Boundary is most popular of all, and sits beside the Des Plaines River Trail just northwest of Elmwood Park.
This 18-hole track is embedded in deep woodland, which provides the OB, and has plenty of strategically placed sand and water to punish wayward shots.
The course was redesigned not long ago by renowned Illinois architect Dick Nugent and harmonizes with its natural setting as a Cooperative Sanctuary, certified by Audubon International.
For a novel way to get from hole to hole, Indian Boundary has a number of GolfBoards, electric scooters you can rent for a small fee.