Boasting an eclectic vibe similar to its nearby big city neighbor, this near west suburb also reflects its historic roots and a small town sense of community
Walk along Madison Street and you’re bound to notice signs reading “I 6 FP” in the windows of many businesses. Those signs, attributed to the owner of Healy’s Westside bar and grill, reflect the affection and attention that Forest Park is getting for its array of things to do and see.
If foot traffic is any indication, there’s a lot of love for this western suburb of nearly 15,000 residents, conveniently located due west of downtown Chicago, just off the Eisenhower Expressway, at the western end of the city’s Green and Blue lines of the elevated “L” trains. Standing on the corner of Harlem Avenue and Madison Street on a clear day, one can get a straight-on view of the Loop skyline.
While Forest Park is rich in history, there has been a revitalization in recent years, propelled by merchants, restaurateurs, business owners and service providers whose love and passion for what they do has made this village a destination for dining, shopping, having a fun night out and taking part in unique events.
“Many years ago, Forest Park was a town where you came to get a drink because many nearby communities were dry back in the day,” says Laurie Kokenes, executive director of the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and Development. “For the past several years though, our strength has been local independent businesses. You get a different kind of customer service here and you meet neighbors and friends when you’re on the street.”
“It’s been said,” adds Kokenes, “that Forest Park has big city access and small town charm, and it’s true.”
In addition to those who take advantage of the vibrant — and still-expanding — scene in downtown Forest Park and in other parts of town, residents and community leaders have a bond that makes the town unique, says Larry Piekarz, director of the Park District of Forest Park. “It’s a great, close-knit community. Everyone seems to get along, and that includes residents as well as government agencies and the village schools, park and library.”
Forest Park’s successful combination of businesses and attractions is reflected in the town’s population. “Forest Park is culturally diverse,” notes Kokenes. In keeping with its diversity, a variety of programs, special events and cultural offerings meets the interests and needs of a broad range of people.
Madison Street Dining and Drinking
Even as some suburbs have grappled with replacing shuttered stores and eateries and sustaining existing ones, Forest Park’s central business district along Madison Street is currently thriving.
The stretch of Madison roughly from Harlem to Circle and Des Plaines avenues is a major hub, lined with specialty shops and restaurants.
The variety of restaurants has earned Madison Street a designation of “restaurant row,” and several dining spots here have earned rave reviews. There are eateries for every taste, ranging from old school to high end, from sweets to savory, from Americana to globally inspired.
Exemplifying the eclectic vibe of Forest Park, Madison Street’s restaurants span newer, urban-like establishments as well as old-school spots that have been in town (or look like it) for decades. You’ll find stalwarts that are still packing them in, such as Louie’s Grill, Jimmy’s Place and, nearby on Harlem, Parky’s, along with buzzed-about newer places like The Heritage and local favorites like FatDuck Tavern and Grill, Gaetano’s, Piggyback Tavern, Scratch Kitchen, Francesca’s Fiore, Skrine Chops and caffe DeLuca.
Kid-friendly places also make this part of town a destination, including the Junction Diner that features a “delivery train” along the dining counter and an interactive train table.
The same holds true for seeking out snacks and sweets in downtown Forest Park. A hip coffee spot, Counter Coffee, is on the same street as a tiny but mighty chocolate shop, La Maison de Bonbon, that makes the same French creams and truffles as it did when it opened in 1921. The Brown Cow ice cream parlor may not date back generations, but it certainly has that feel, with a counter teeming with homemade ice creams, a menu of indulgent desserts and real glass sundae cups. Pastries by Kay is one of the increasingly rare independent bakeries around and is known for its flaky twists and turnovers.
Eating and drinking is an all-day affair in Forest Park. Breakfast spots such as Madison Park Kitchen and the Original Pancake House meet morning meal needs, and there are plenty of lunch and dinner options. After dark, Forest Park’s legacy as a tavern town continues, as crowds mill in and out of popular pubs like Doc Ryan’s, Duffy’s Tavern, Shortstop, O’Sullivan’s Public House, Exit Strategy Brewing and Old School Tavern and Grill.
Beyond the Madison Street corridor, there are several other restaurants and bars in this near western suburb that exemplify Forest Park’s mix of cuisines and venues. Golden Steer Steakhouse on Roosevelt Road continues to draw accolades for its time-tested steaks, French onion soup and white tablecloth ambiance. On Circle Avenue, Goldyburger’s lives up to its decades-long reputation as a go-to burger joint, with the same 1926 slogan “Never had a bad one.”
Madison Street Shopping
Just as Forest Park’s restaurants have helped revitalize the community, Madison Street stores offer a similar mix of old and new, hip and classic. “We have mom and pop stores — they are not chains, and they are very distinctive,” says Kokenes. “For example, we have a history and mystery book store, a guitar store where the gentleman makes guitars and offers lessons, and a military and police surplus store.”
To her point, the Military and Police Supply store on Madison Avenue is as much a part of the fabric of the merchant community as fashionable boutiques like Jayne, Team Blonde, Girlicious and the home décor/interior design shop Yearbook. Likewise, places like Centuries and Sleuths bookstore, the Forest Park Emporium antique store and Grand Appliance are figurative bookends to spots like Camille et Famille, Strut, and Deedee and Edee boutiques.
Some Madison Street shops cater to those with hobbies and pastimes, like the aforementioned Dance Guitars, which provides lessons, service and repairs as well as workshops in guitar building. Music fans also can check out the vinyl at Old School Records. People of all ages can apply their painting skills at Creativita, which offers painting classes and parties. If you prefer knitting, spin a yarn at Knit Nirvana. Cigar aficionados can browse premium cigars at Casa de Puros, which has an in-house smoking lounge. Todd and Holland Tea Merchants sources teas from all over the world, for those who really know and savor teas to those who want a sip of something different.
Shamrocks on Parade
Hearts are on display in Forest Park windows, thanks to signs that support local business, but shamrocks are decidedly a part of this suburb as well. The heritage of the community is evident in the many Irish pubs and restaurants and, in March, at the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.
“This is the 21st year for our ‘St. Paddy’s Day’ parade, which is one of the largest parades in the suburbs,” says Kokenes. This year’s parade is Saturday, March 4 from 1 to 2:30 p.m., with crowds lining the route along Madison Street to watch bagpipers, bands, Irish dancers and other floats and marching groups.
Beyond the wearing of the green every March, Forest Park is known for other events, some of which are different from typical suburban fare. The annual Holiday Walk, for example, features live window displays, as merchants design windows with “models” to entertain the crowd.
While the community may be known for draft beers available on tap at its many taverns, Forest Park is hosting a Spring Wine Walk and Shop on April 22 between 1 and 5 p.m. Guests can sample wine and appetizers while shopping at more than 16 locations along Madison Street. Also popular are a German Fest in June and a Music Fest in July.
Casket Races are another signature event in Forest Park, usually held in October before Halloween. “Casket Races is one event in particular that causes some eyebrows to raise, but when they learn the ratio of dead versus living residents, people get it. Forest Park cemeteries hold many historical and interesting characters,” explains Kokenes, who clarifies that the racing vessels aren’t actual caskets. “They are basically any vehicle you push, with four wheels and handles.”
Plots and Monuments
The annual Casket Races are a nod to the cemeteries that are tied to Forest Park’s history and that continue to draw people to the suburb to inter and visit departed loved ones. Those cemeteries include Forest Home Cemetery, Waldheim Jewish Cemetery, Concordia Cemetery and Woodlawn Cemetery.
These grounds contain gravesites and monuments for several notable figures, including victims of the Eastland boat disaster on the Chicago River and those who perished in the Haymarket riots. The graves of circus employees who died in
a 1918 train accident near Hammond, Indiana, are located within a “Showman’s Rest” section of Woodlawn Cemetery. For many years, it was said that the cemetery included graves of elephants who died in that wreck. Actress Elizabeth Taylor used to visit the Forest Park grave of her late husband, Mike Todd, buried in Waldheim Jewish Cemetery.
Special cemetery tours run throughout the year, including those led by members of the Historical Society of Forest Park. In October, an annual “Tales of the Tombstones” walk is sponsored by the nearby Historical Society of Oak Park River Forest. The Forest Park Historical Society museum is located at the First United Church of Christ, and the organization sponsors a variety of programs and special events, including the Des Plaines River Anthology and the popular Prohibition Pub Crawl.
“Forest Park has a rich history that tends not to be recognized,” says Dr. Gerald Lordan, longtime member of the Forest Park Historical Society, a history instructor at Fenwick High School in Oak Park and a Forest Park Kiwanian and Rotarian. According to Lordan, Forest Park was once an important residential and ceremonial area for the Potawatomi Tribe of Native Americans and its location along the Des Plaines River made the area an ideal spot for the fur trade. “We were an active railroad town, and a good number of railroad workers joined the Union Army in the Civil War,” he notes.
Waterways, Pathways and Parks
To Lordan’s point, the Des Plaines River that winds through parts of Forest Park has made this burg an appealing location for centuries. In 2017, Forest Park’s natural elements remain attractions for residents and visitors. For instance, the Illinois Prairie Path that cuts through the western suburbs begins in Forest Park at the Des Plaines River. Forest Park is also the site of the Miller Meadow, overseen
by the Cook County Forest Preserve.
The Park District of Forest Park keeps up other green spaces in town, including “The Park” on Harrison Street, just south of the Eisenhower Expressway. “Our major park is called The Park. They never renamed it — people just say, ‘Let’s meet at The Park’,” says Piekarz, adding, “In summertime, it’s the place to be.” The Park includes three softball fields, a synthetic turf field, playground, tennis courts, bocce ball pits, sand volleyball courts, skate park and outdoor aquatic center.
Programs and special events for all ages are held throughout the year in the Park District’s administrative building, which was built during the Depression by the Works Progress Administration. With an eye to the future, the Park District of Forest Park has submitted plans to the village for a center on the site of a nearby property it has acquired. “We are trying to build a gym there, a possible outdoor ice rink and a music amphitheater,” says Piekarz, who has worked for the Park District for 28 years.
16-inch Softball Hall of Fame
The gloves are off! The Park in Forest Park is home to another icon tied to the history of the village — the 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame. “Softball started in Chicago in 1876, and it all began with a wrapped-up boxing glove and a broomstick,” explains Ron Kubicki, president of the 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame.
Sixteen-inch softball became an institution as much as a recreational sport in Chicago because of its distinct bare-handed fielding and larger ball. “It’s part of our heritage,” says Kubicki, adding that the museum was placed in Forest Park because of the town’s affinity for the game.
The Hall of Fame Museum is open year-round and hosts a variety of tours for school and athletic groups. A highlight of the year is the week of the “No-Gloves National” tournament held on Forest Park’s softball fields each summer. “We’re open that whole week and get a larger number of people going through the halls. People are so astounded once they get inside the museum,” says Kubicki.
Other Highlights of Forest Park:
• Lending a legacy of sweetness to town is Ferrara Candy Company, maker of favorite confections like Lemonheads, Atomic Fireballs, Red Hots and Jujyfruits, among others, since 1908.
• Mohr Oil, a family owned fuel distributor, is another fixture. The Mohr family can trace its history to the first mayor of Forest Park, Howard Mohr, who was also the last mayor under the town’s previous name, Harlem.Edit Module