Plenty of suburbs boast leafy, tree-lined streets. La Grange is unique, say its residents, because of the ways those trees are bedecked in times of joy and difficulty. When a local family experiences a loss, is going through challenging times, or welcoming a new addition, neighbors on their block —and, in fact, many blocks in town — wrap trees with ribbon in various colors. In recent years, rows of trees have been adorned with pink, white, red, purple and blue ribbons, personalized for the family in need’s favorite color or official color of cause.
It’s a mark — literally — of the close-knit nature of this western suburb, about 15 miles west of downtown Chicago.
"For people unfamiliar with La Grange, I would tell them that the ‘facts’ about the village make it a great place to live — close to the city, has its own great downtown, good schools, etcetera," says Ellen Kunkle, a 19-year resident who grew up in the area and attended Lyons Township High School. "But more importantly, it’s a community with a lot of heart. Neighbors, in the broadest sense, take care of each other. The residents, churches and community organizations do a lot to make sure that people in need get help, whether that’s for a one-day crisis or a lifetime of overcoming obstacles."
Kunkle, who raised her family in town with her husband, is the director of development at Community Nurse Health Center in La Grange, which has provided health and dental care to low-income and uninsured residents of the western suburbs for 95 years. "The origins of hiring the first ‘Community Nurse’ really speak to the spirit of La Grange residents," maintains Kunkle. "Basically, a group of dedicated and caring residents saw the need to provide care to those less fortunate in our area. They got together and made it happen. We still see that spirit today."
Kunkle’s sentiment is shared by 20-year resident Michael Lannan, who owns an investment advisory business in town and is a director of the Legacy Guild, a not-for-profit men’s group in the village that collectively manages a college scholarship program for local young women and men who have lost a parent. "There has always been a strong sense of community here, and that’s what I love about it," he says of La Grange.
According to Lannan, the Legacy Guild was started by a group of local men drawn together when several of their friends and neighbors suddenly passed away in 2012. "I think it says a lot about the town," says Lannan. "When I think of the Legacy Guild, I think about looking out for your neighbors. Not to be hokey, but we’re almost like a family here."
Other grassroots organizations, beyond Community Nurse and Legacy Guild, also tend to be service-oriented and are actively supported by residents and others. Examples include the Helping Hand Center, LeaderShop, BEDS, Pillars, Robert E. Coulter Post 1941 American Legion, Southwest Suburban Center on Aging, Rotary Club of La Grange, and the Greater La Grange Area YMCA, among others. Those organizations, in turn, often sponsor popular events to raise awareness and funds for their respective causes.
Local leaders likewise report a closeness that spills over to relationships among the business, government, educational and service sectors. "La Grange is a forward-thinking village, and the administration works very well with the La Grange Business Association and others, all of whom want to invest in the community," says Nancy Cummings, executive director of
the La Grange Business Association (LGBA).
Mayor Tom Livingston, who grew up in nearby Highlands and moved back to La Grange when he started his own family, sums up the benefits of La Grange. "La Grange has flourished because of its great combination of public and private schools, access to Metra and great location, its tree canopy, and its vibrant restaurant and retail scene," says Livingston. "We also benefit from great neighboring communities where we can go to each other’s downtowns," adding that the village continues to draw a mix of residents.
"We’ve been told that it’s easy for new residents to feel at home here, whether they are empty nesters, young couples or families looking for a great place to raise their kids," adds Livingston.
Steve Jasinski, a local resident, realtor, immediate past president of the LGBA and president of the Rotary Club of nearby Countryside, agrees that La Grange is both welcoming and well-rounded from a variety of perspectives. "Our leaders have had strong foresight. We’ve got safe streets, fantastic schools, one of the best downtowns in all of the suburbs, great
restaurants and a community that supports each other, our town and our schools. It truly is a unique combination. With our ease to the highways, and the Burlington Northern to Chicago, people are coming here from all directions."
An emphasis on collaboration between village and community leaders has led to the renaissance of the downtown business district over the last couple of decades, to the point where downtown La Grange is considered one of the near western suburbs’ hotspots.
Ask a teenager in La Grange or in a nearby town about "DTLG" and they’ll tell you that it stands for "Down Town La Grange" and is a regular destination for hanging out with friends.
DTLG attracts all kinds of people due to its many restaurants, movie theater and stores. "La Grange is unique in that it has maintained its small town charm but with an urban vibe," says Cummings. "The vibrant restaurant community has done a lot to draw not only families but adults and seniors, too. It’s the kind of place where you can walk around and see everything and it has a very neighborhood feel. The business owners know the regulars and if you’re new, people like to talk to you and find out more about you."
According to Jasinski, people take advantage of the proximity of downtown La Grange to train stations, bus stops and nearby roadways. "I love going into Prasino, Blueberry Hill or Cafe Calbay and saying hi to all the folks I know," he says, "and then sitting down next to a couple from Chicago, or Berwyn or Clarendon Hills and telling them all about our town."
Visitors can dine around the world in downtown La Grange, which offers restaurants specializing in Mexican/Latin (Casa Margarita, EmpanadUS, Santiago’s Mexican Cocina, Taco Cantina), Asian (Yau’s Place, WOOW, Sushi Ukai, Magic Wok, Thipi Thai), Greek (Grapevine Mediterranean Market Place), and Indian (Kama Indian Bistro, which was visited
by a member of the former boy band One Direction last fall), to name a few.
Those with a penchant for pizza and Italian can find it at Amand’s, Bella Bacino’s, Di Nico’s, Fireside Wood-Fired Pizza and Café, Francesca’s Bellezza, La Buona Vita, Lucca’s Pizzeria and more.
If you want to hang out and have a beer or cocktail in addition to dinner or enjoy a little nightlife, you can stop by Palmer Place Restaurant and Biergarten, which offers two-level outdoor patio seating in the outdoor season, or Wild Monk, which also has outdoor seating along La Grange Road, as many restaurants do.
In keeping with the walkable downtown landscape, there are plenty of places to get a sweet treat or snack. Bakeries abound, including Aracely’s, Nothing Bundt Cakes and Sweetness, while confectioners at Fannie May, Lilett’ Candies Gourmet Chocolate Shop and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory also make life sweet for visitors and residents alike.
Unique to La Grange is a co-op of sorts for food entrepreneurs who live in La Grange and neighboring communities. United Kitchen is a commercial kitchen that enterprising chefs and culinary professionals can rent and sell their products to the public. Walking in, visitors might see a local chef whipping up sausage bread (Dee Dee Saracco of Gravy) or paleo treats (Naughty Turned Nice). Currently there are 13 culinary vendors who prepare and/or cook their unique food products at United Kitchen.
As the weather heats up, visitors and residents can cool off with desserts at any number of ice cream, gelato, Italian ice and frozen yogurt shops in downtown La Grange, including Cold Stone Creamery, Di Nico’s, Forever Yogurt, Red Mango, Shaved Up, and Tate’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream Shop.
Downtown La Grange may be known for its restaurants, but it’s also a popular shopping district. Longtime stores like Cleo Boutique and Blue Feather Books are complemented by the addition of new merchants, like Jayne (clothing and shoes), Bloom 3 Boutique (flowers and gifts) and Anderson’s Bookshop (opened last fall and already planning an expansion). Most stores are independently owned, but there are also some national retailers including Trader Joe’s and Pier One Imports.
Another hub of downtown La Grange is the historic La Grange Theater. Built in the golden era of cinema in 1925 and restored again a few year ago, the theater currently has four screens and offers discounted ticket prices. Nearby Bottle & Bottega offers another form of entertainment, as customers can draw and paint in a BYOB atmosphere.
According to Cummings, the business community has been able to thrive because of the strong ties between the village and its residents. "What I’ve seen in the last five or six years is the support of the resident population for local businesses. People recognize that if you don’t support neighborhood businesses, they will go away," she points out.
Downtown La Grange will be home to many new residents soon, with two different residential developments under construction. "The key developments are Uptown La Grange, a 254-unit apartment building that will eventually include retail, and a 28-unit condominium building near downtown," reports Angela Mesaros, assistant director of community and economic development for the village.
The streets of downtown La Grange are always bustling, but the sidewalks and parkways are truly packed on the first Saturday of June for the annual Pet Parade. It’s an iconic event in La Grange, marking its 70th anniversary on Saturday, June 4, as thousands of people — and their pets — take part as both spectators and parade participants. In 1999, a Pets and Pals charity was created as a parade sponsor and an organization that promotes and supports the health of animals in
the Chicagoland area.
To many, the Pet Parade sums up the charm of La Grange. "The Pet Parade is really a quintessential celebration of suburban life where La Grange welcomes visitors to our green parkways and sidewalks to support charity, young people and animals," says Livingston.
The parade steps off on La Grange Road just north of 47th Street and winds around town before ending up at Lyons Township North High School campus. But "Pet Parade Day" involves a number of other activities, from the annual carnival associated with the event to the dozens of block parties held that afternoon and evening.
While the Pet Parade is the signature event of the year in La Grange, it’s hardly the only one. "People plan their summer around particular events," notes Cummings, citing the annual craft fair in July and Endless Summerfest in August. In the fall, the Halloween Walk and Hometown Holiday event also connect merchants, residents and visitors with fun.
Cummings reports that a new event is in the works. "We are planning a walking dessert tour of La Grange, to walk people through town, point out areas of interest and visit five or six of the confectioners and bakeries in town," she says. The tour will be held on Saturdays from June 18 through July 30 (except for the 2nd of July).
West Side Story
Downtown La Grange has a second retail district a few blocks to the west with its own restaurants, stores and events. The West End section of La Grange, adjacent to the Stone Avenue stop on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Metra line, includes an independent grocery, DeVries Market, as well as hip boutiques like Vintage Charm and Stockholm Objects. Diners can savor old world Italian food and pizza at Antonino’s, pick up Chinese at Moy Goy and order from an eclectic menu at Now Serving Café.
The area also hosts the annual West End Art Fair each September, which this year is slated to feature culinary arts as well as fine art.
Settled in the 1830s and officially founded in 1879, La Grange includes a neighborhood known as the Historic District. Victorian frame houses abound and one can spot historical features of note, such as carriage houses originally used for horses that now serve as garages. Several historic churches are a part of the neighborhood as well, many of them located on residential blocks.
The La Grange Area Historical Society, at the corner of La Grange Road and 47th Street, is located in the Vial House that was built in 1874 and bought in 1984 to be used as a museum and archive center. The Historical Society offers a plethora of photos, documents and memorabilia and is unique in the sense that it keeps files on every address in town. Homeowners can come in and look up various bits of history related to their home and property.
The society hosts special events and fundraisers throughout the year, including an annual Tea with Your American Girl Doll for children and Trivia Night for adults. On May 22, the society is hosting a walking tour of Frank Lloyd Wright Homes in La Grange, including structures that the famous architect built at different points in his illustrious career.
• The Park District of La Grange: Although La Grange is a little over 2.5 square miles in total, there are several parks in town, including Denning Park, Elm Park, Sedgwick Park, Spring Avenue Park, Waiola Park, Gilbert Park and others. These facilities are especially busy in spring and summer, filled with youngsters playing soccer, baseball, softball and other sports. The Park District of La Grange also runs an indoor facility with its own year-round playground and offers programs for all ages throughout the year.
• La Grange Public Library: Started by the La Grange Women’s Club as a free lending library and officially founded in 1905 after a grant from famed steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, the La Grange Public Library has evolved with the times. It was rebuilt in 1965 and again in 2005 and is constantly updating its services to reflect its patrons’ changing needs. A couple of years ago, for example, the library added a new digital media lab that allows patrons to make videos, record music and arrange photo shoots.
• Education: Over the years, La Grange has been listed by various publications as a great place to live, in part because of the reputation and ranking of its schools. Lyons Township High School dates back to 1888 and has separate campuses for freshman/sophomores and juniors/seniors. Several private and parochial schools also serve the community including St. Cletus, St. Francis Xavier and St. John Lutheran.