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Laurie’s Six Best Bakeries in Chicagoland

cannoliChicago, IL—It is pretty audacious for anyone to define the best six bakeries in a metro area this size. But after sampling so many bakeries, I’ve come back to a select few over and over. From south to north, each of these have specialties you won’t want to miss.

Apple croissant1. Medici, 1327 E. 57th, Hyde Park. A 50-year-old institution in the University of Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, Medici is known for its restaurant’s pizza and for its famous guests, the Obama family. But come to the bakery and order the buttery, flaky apple croissants that come loaded with thick slices of real apples, and are not too sweet or gooey. Just croissant, generous pieces of apples, and lightly sweet taste.

biscotti2. Scafuri Bakery, 1337 West Taylor, Little Italy. Taylor Street has loads of great Italian restaurants, and good bakeries, too. But Scafuri has the best biscotti of them all. The biscotti de notte, stuffed with hazelnuts and just the right crunch for dipping into your latte, is breakfast perfection. The plain almond biscotti are also top notch, made by baking just once, not twice.

3. Roeser’s Bakery, 3216 W. North, Humbolt Park. Originally a German neighborhood, Humbolt Park is now home to Puerto Rican families, but Rosiers stays true to its German roots. Great linzer tortes at Christmas, pączkis on Fat Thursday, and cakes of all sorts all year round. German chocolate cake, anyone?

4. Kaufman’s Bakery and Delicatessen, 4905 Dempster, Skokie. All sorts of rugulah cookies, cinnamon bobke, and other treats, including some amazing lox. Just don’t walk out without getting a walnut-raisin pumpernickle bread. No need for butter, it’s so sweet and tasty.

bagel and roll5. Once Upon A Bagel, 1888 First, Highland Park. The assortment of skinny bagels will astound you. Yes, get your everything bagel fix here at half the calories. And the challah rolls are perfect for a small Shabbat dinner for two. Once Upon A Bagel has other locations, and delicious meals, but that’s another story.


wedding cookies6. Tina’s Italian Cafe and Bake Shop, 1501 Washington, Gurnee. The crowds often flow out the door here, and for good reason. This is the genuine article. Italian wedding cookies, tiramisu, and delicious homemade breads compete with homemade Italian meals for space in your tummy. Save room for the cannoli, though.





Having a Chicago Field (Museum) Day

The great hall of the Field Museum

The Stanley Field Hall of the Field Museum

Chicago, IL–The wealth of museums in Chicago make it difficult to decide which to explore first. One of the original city museums, the Field Museum of Natural History, founded right after the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in one of the fair buildings. It was later moved to its current site at 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive. The Field Museum is one of the largest natural history museums in the world, making it a multi-day destination.

20140419_112411Most visitors are attracted in the main hall to Sue, at 42-feet-long and 13 feet high, the most complete and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex fossil. It’s only 67 million years old!

Be sure to check out Sue’s enormous actual fossil head upstairs in a glass case, which couldn’t be put on the model downstairs due to its 600-pound weight.

Dioramas in the Hall of Mammals feature taxidermied animals in their natural habitat. The Field’s first taxidermist, Carl Akeley, revolutionized the art of preserving animals in natural poses. The elephants in the main hall are his work, as well as the famed man-eating lions of Tsavo, a pride of lions that ate 35 people in Kenya, stopping construction in 1898 of a railroad project over the Tsavo River. Chicago’s WGN TV featured the dioramas and their continued effect on education this video.

Lovers of gems and minerals will want to check out the Grainger Hall of Gems, highlighted by a Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass window. The hall was renovated in 2009 and features 600 gems: diamonds, rubies, emeralds, opals and others from around the world, as well as 150 pieces of jewelry.

Open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Field Museum’s basic admission is $18 for adults, $13 for children ages 3-11.

Of course, for Chicagoans, the Field is a source of pride, especially during playoff season. In late April and early May, a dinosaur displays his Blackhawks pride. 20140419_120238


Rebuilding Chicago’s Wells Street Bridge

Wells Street Bridge rebuilding

Wells Street Bridge rebuilding

Chicago, IL–By the time the summer visitors arrive, work on the Wells Street Bridge over the Chicago River will be history. The bridge carries the city’s famous El trains over the river to and from the Loop, road traffic over it, foot traffic alongside. And of course ferry and other river traffic flows beneath it. For those of us who have watched this fascinating rebuilding, it’s a feat of engineering.

New sections were built offsite, then floated on huge platforms to the old bridge. The original 1922 sections were cut away in two phases, and the final new section is being installed now. While Wells Street Bridge construction is not as famous  as the 1883 Brooklyn Bridge, it evokes similar reactions of amazement from passersby.

Next time you’re in the city, you might want to take a moment to reflect on the amazing architecture over the river as well as alongside it.

Cut off old section of Wells Street bridge.

Cut off old section of Wells Street bridge.

Opportunity Knocks at openhousechicago2012

A view of the old Sears Tower from the original Sears Tower

La Casita de don Pedro

St. Adalbert’s in Pilsen

Chicago, IL--This weekend’s openhousechicago was a rare chance to see the original Sears Tower of Homan Square in Lawndale, a peek into the dusty projector room at a former vaudeville and movie house in Pilsen, and Jens Jensen’s office in Humboldt Park, among 150 sites open and free to the public. You just had to show up.

Even spitting rain wouldn’t deter me from heading to Homan Square, and take a tour of the yet-to-be-restored brick tower landmark at 900 S. Homan Ave. From the 14th floor, I could easily see the second Sears Tower (now Willis Tower), site of my first job out of college. Across the street, students offered guided tours of Power House High, in a building that once housed the power generators for the Sears campus. The school preserved a few of the ash ovens and conveyer belts that men worked in front of, as the enormous chimney burned coal to fire the plant.

From Lawndale, it was a short drive to Pilsen and home to Apollo 2000 Theater at 2875 W. Cermak Road. The Mexican community hosts lavish parties in the former vaudeville and movie house, but a tight stairway up to the projector room shows a world left behind–large projectors still sitting, empty film cannisters and boxes marked “trailer” sit waiting for the last picture show. Los Corrales, a restaurant next door to the theater, made a great lunch stop with reasonably priced food and excellent service.

St. Adalbert’s Church, 1650 W. 17th St., an Italian Renaissance style church originally built for the Poles who once lived in Pilsen, still offers a mass in Polish. Polish words are inscribed above the magnificent white marble altar. But Mexican families were there with babies on this weekend, as well as tourists like me taking photos of the artwork and the replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Heading northwest, the next stop was La Casita de don Pedro at 2625 W. Division. It’s a traditional Puerto Rican home with tin roof and front porch, and local residents gather for drumming workshops. The courtyard statue of Don Pedro Albizu Campos, honors the Puerto Rican who fought for independence and died shortly after release from a U.S. federal prison. Farther west, Humboldt Park’s restored 1896 stables building at 3015 W. Division, is home to the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture. The former office of famed landscape architect Jens Jensen is still being restored, but the panoramic views from the semi-circle shaped room span the park and even over to his former home, a greystone across the street.

Also in the 219-acre Humboldt Park: the Refectory and Boat House at 1440 N. Humboldt Drive, a Prairie-style building on the National Register of Historic Places  overlooking a lake, and well as the Humboldt Park Field House at 1440 N. Sacramento, featuring two gyms and a ballroom, flanked by marble columns.

North and east of Humboldt Park, Uptown hosted a number of venues, but time was running short. I ended my tour of the day at Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation at 5029 N. Kenmore Ave.. The last extant cathedral-style synagogue in the city, closed since 2008, reopened for this event. Climbing the old marble stairs to the sanctuary, where a glittering Italian mosaic ark stood, as rain dripped through the ceiling and left puddles on the floor. Rotting sills leaked air and light around the stained glass windows. Pigeons perched on the women’s balcony. Agudas Achim, an Orthodox congregation that serves an immigrant population in the nearby neighborhood, still hopes to save the building.

So many sites and so little time. Next year, I’ll be starting my tours of openhousechicago a little earlier.

Apollo 2000 Theater projection room

Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation’s mosaic ark


Spring Forward!

Highwood, IL–Crocuses bloom, robins peck for worms, bright red cardinals sing from the trees. With temperatures in the high 60s and blue skies overhead, spring has sprung. In addition to being a great time to get out and walk, now is the time to check out the birds. They’re easier to see in the naked trees, and with mating season about to launch, they’re vocalizing more.

Consider a spring resolution to learn more about which birds are out and about, and get in tune with their songs. In his book, What the Robin Knows, author Jon Young shows newbies like me how to listen for birds and identify their sounds. Not to just learn which one is singing, but perhaps why. Did you notice the woods grow silent when a hawk soared overhead? Did you hear a call and answer from a pair of cardinals as you and your dog walked past? These are just a few of the many tracking secrets you’ll learn as you get in touch with nature.  “Bird language increases people’s power in the moment,” Young says in an introductory video.

Oh, if only I hadn’t lost a listening hour by springing forward today.

Openlands Lakeshore Preserve Worth The Trip

Highwood, IL– Even the view from a North Shore mansion isn’t this spectacular. Trails of the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve bridge over and through ravines and along undeveloped bluffs of Ft. Sheridan, often opening to expansive vistas overlooking Lake Michigan. Preserving and renewing this habitat for birds and native plants is the mission for the new preserve, which opened September 10.

Guides were on hand to lead visitors through the environmental aspects of the project and the artwork beside the trails. Visitors to the preserve can also check signs for QR codes to get podcasts on the artwork or other features of the preserve.

Walk the road down Barlett Ravine to hear woodpeckers and squirrels, and perhaps spy a hawk. At the road’s end, a north path leads to a dog-friendly beach and a south road to a more environmentally delicate one where pets aren’t allowed. Two staircases made of treated lumber with railings and decks of recycled plastic let you go from ravine  or beach base up to the bluff, a welcome opportunity and safe way to access the different sections.

The land for the preserve was acquired from the U.S. Navy in 2006 through a grant from the Grand Victoria Foundation. A number of other donors have also contributed to remove invasive species, build stairs, and lay paths.

While the trail is not connected at one short stretch due to ongoing negotiations with the military, it’s an easy jog around that short point to a trail through a mound of wildflowers and grasses. This natural-looking spot is a former ravine that the army used as a landfill, now covered with flora. It’s a little odd to know you’re tramping on a big pile of trash, but the lake and wildflowers just may make you forget that fact.




Buckingham Fountain Open!

Chicago, IL–Buckingham Fountain in Chicago’s Grant Park makes its spring splash! One more reason to love this city. Did you know it’s one of the largest fountains in the world and runs from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.? Light and music shows lasting 20 minutes begin at dusk, with the last show at 10 p.m.. Buckingham Fountain will keep spouting this year ’till mid-October.

Illinois Glacier

Highwood, IL–Where is Illinois like Switzerland or Alaska?  Along the icy shore of Ft. Sheridan Forest Preserve, and Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, where a shelf of icy looks like the edge of Alaska’s Glacier Bay, and deep fissures in the ice-covered sand appear to be crevasses.  If you’ve ever hiked a glacier, you will recognize its eerily similarity.  Wear insulated boots with Yax Trak to keep from slipping, bundle up and enjoy winter on Lake Michigan lakefront.