Bootleggers, Tee-totalers, and Egg-throwing Apes: stories from Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse

Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse sits on the northwest corner of Block 1. The restaurant opened in 1987, but the story of this location is much, much older.

This story is featured in Living Landmarks of Chicago, a fascinating book that brings landmarks to life. Get your copy today!

The first time you see the building at the southeast corner of Kinzie and Dearborn, you’ll do a double-take. Then a triple. You’ll realize you’re staring. “There’s a whole lot going on,” you’ll think, what with those red bricks and white accents, an exuberant number of dormers and stepped gables and a steeply pitched roof.

There are quoins and voussoirs and all sorts of other architectural elements that combine to create a distinctive and complex exterior. The Chicago Landmarks Designation Report states there’s a “nearly hedonistic pleasure in decoration,” yet the architect displayed a “controlled sense of craft.” You agree with that assessment.

If you think there’s a lot happening on the outside, just wait until you find out what happened inside, underneath, and before the building even existed. Bootleggers, tee-totalers, insects frozen in amber and vaults encased in walls, hidden tunnels, future presidents, and egg-throwing apes all played a part in the history of what is now Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse.

Bootleggers, Tee-totalers, and Egg-throwing Apes: stories from Harry Caray's Italian Steakhouse 1
John Kinzie’s House, from Chicago: A Hand Book for Strangers & Tourists to the City of Chicago; Containing Historical Retrospect … Descriptions of the Public Buildings, Churches, 1869

The story of this corner starts with a man in a canoe. Dr. Alexander Wolcott, Jr. landed at Fort Dearborn at the end of August, 1820. He was the new “Indian Agent,” assigned to interact with and pay annuities to the area’s original inhabitants. He was also the settlement’s first doctor. He moved into a cabin north of the river and west of the Kinzie residence.

Three years after arriving, Alexander married Ellen Kinzie, the not-quite-eighteen-year-old daughter of John, in the first non-native wedding.

The newlyweds moved into the fort, possibly because Alexander’s housekeeping was so bad his neighbors called his cabin the Cobweb Castle. In 1830, the US government divided the land around the river into blocks and sold them to raise money for a future canal. On September 27, Dr. Wolcott bought Block Number 1.

Bootleggers, Tee-totalers, and Egg-throwing Apes: stories from Harry Caray's Italian Steakhouse 2
Title referencing the sale of Block 1 to Alexander Wolcott.

Twenty-eight days later, he died, and his will went into probate, another first.

During the growing pains of Chicago’s early years, Block Number 1 changed hands a few times. William B. Ogden, the city’s first Mayor, owned it for a bit. Grant Goodrich, with his partner Alexander N. Fullerton, had law offices on the property. Mr. Goodrich (a relation by marriage to the author of this here site) was an attorney, a judge, and a good friend of Abraham Lincoln’s.

Grant was such a good friend he invited the future president to become his law partner. Abe declined, but the two remained close.

Mr. Goodrich was a tee-totaler of the driest order. He co-founded Northwestern University in Evanston and was partly responsible for that northern Chicago suburb’s lack of liquor. With his dedication to abstention, he probably wouldn’t have been too thrilled with the future shenanigans on Block Number 1.

By mid-century, railroad tracks lined the northern side of the river. With the ability to ship via both train and boat, this area was the perfect location for industry. It was a district of warehouses, filled with smoke, grime, and noise – an unlikely place to build one of the most magnificent buildings in the city. 

The Chicago Varnish Company began as a small family affair in 1865. Their product was a resin preparation that protects wood, furniture, coaches, and carriages and gives them a glossy finish.

It’s also used for maritime purposes and painting restoration. It doesn’t sound very glamorous, unless you’re the author of Commerce, manufactures, banking and transportation facilities, 1884. Then you’ll wax – or varnish – rhapsodic:

“When the wondering attention of the first traveler was directed to a smooth, rounded, translucent, yellowish mass, now known as the Gum Copal of commerce, the quantities in which it was found may have led him to speculate on its possible utility, but it is entirely improbable that he ever entertained the remotest conjecture as to its value in the arts, or the immense traffic to which it was eventually destined to give rise… Where I sit writing, this, the desk on which I lean, the chair in which I sit, and indeed the most of the furniture which meets the eye, owes its lustrous beauty to a cloudy mass of gum which years ago exuded from giant trees in the heart of Madagascar. The luxurious carriages which roll so noiselessly along our streets bearing perhaps the representatives of millions, the magnificent pianos of modern manufacture, from whose mirrored surfaces the face of the beholder is thrown back as from the depths of a lonely well, owe their exquisite perfection of gloss to the same pale, tasteless Copal gum.”

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Advertisement for Chicago Varnish Company; source: Library of Congress

In the early 1890s, the Chicago Varnish Company wanted a building suitable for this wondrous lacquer. They bought the northwest corner of Block Number 1 and hired one of the city’s architectural darlings.

Henry Ives Cobb was in his early thirties when he was given the commission for the new showroom. He may have been young, but he already had the Union Club and the Palmer Castle (both demolished) under his belt, and in 1893 he added the Chicago Athletic Association and the Newberry Library to his credits.

Instead of being associated with a distinctive style, like H. H. Richardson or Louis Sullivan, Cobb was known for his adaptation of different genres. For example, Newberry was Richardsonian Romanesque and the Chicago Athletic Association was Venetian Gothic.

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Newberry Library, circa 1901; Source: Library of Congress

For the Chicago Varnish Company Building, completed in 1895, Cobb chose Dutch Renaissance Revival. Its spirited exterior stood out among the factories, warehouses, railroads and shipyards like the petals of a bright red tulip above a late April snow. (Which happens in Chicago frequently.)

The odoriferous location may not have been the best place for a showroom, but the company used it as such for fifteen years, even installing a resin museum. Customers and clients could get a close-up look at insects that were thousands of years old, frozen in the same material that would be glossed over carriage doors and fireplace mantels. The Chicago Varnish Company moved out of their Dutch masterpiece in 1910, and a few years later they donated their collection of hardened resin and encased bugs to the Field Museum. 

Ad for Chicago Varnish Company from 1897
Ad for Chicago Varnish Company from 1897

The company leased out the building to various interests until 1925, when Thomas Alexander Somerville purchased it. His company, Hunter, Walton & Co, sold wholesale butter, egg, and cheese. He was serious enough he put his company name in giant letters on top of Cobb’s masterpiece.

Fourteen years later, another food-based company purchased the building. Louis Caravetta wanted the space for his Ehrat Cheese Company and its Italian specialty foods.

Sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it? Only if you forget this is Chicago, where there is always a suspicion of impropriety and corruption, especially in the 1920s.

In addition to the legitimate sale of foodstuffs, there was also quite a bit of mischief occurring at Kinzie and Dearborn. Gustav Muller, an Al Capone confederate, was rumored to have run a speakeasy in the building during Prohibition. In 1926, a raid netted dozens of illegal slot machines.

On January 4, 1934, Chicago patrolman John Moore called the police station. According to an article picked up by the Gettysburg (Tennessee) Times from January 5:

“I want help,” he reported emphatically. “I am being egged by a brace of apes and my horse has been snapped at by a bear and I want a transfer to the motorcycle detail.”

Apparently, two chimpanzees and a bear were on their way to a photo shoot. Their trainer told them to wait in the car while he met with the photographer. Being wild animals, they didn’t, especially when a kind passerby helped them out by opening the rear gate of the vehicle. The bear headed for the nearest saloon and the chimpanzees found a truck full of eggs, most likely idling in front of Hunter, Walton & Co. The apes entered the warehouse and then the elevator, each biting a leg of the operator. Finally the trainer emerged from his meeting, rounded up the wayward animals, and the truck driver cleaned “raw omelet out of an ear.”

Louis Caravetta bought the building in 1939 and his future son-in-law Frank Nitti, nee Nitto, had an apartment on the fourth floor. According to most accounts, Frank had taken over the Chicago Outfit while his buddy Al Capone languished in prison.

In 1942, Frank married Louis’ daughter Annette, giving her $75,000 for the privilege. The hush-hush is that the money was a thank-you present for flushing out her boss, Ed O’Hare, which put him directly into the path of a speeding bullet. Ed, Capone’s former attorney, allegedly gave up the goods that put Al away. 

Frank killed himself the year after he and Annette married. It wasn’t because the marriage was that bad: he was about to go to prison himself for his part in a Hollywood film industry extortion plot. Rather than be locked up, he got drunk and shot himself in the head. Frank may not have been in the building for very long, but a later tenant would discover that he’d gotten quite a bit of use out of it.

The Caravettas kept the building for the next few decades. In 1971, Kinzie Street Steak and Chop House opened the first restaurant. Nine years later, different restaurateurs opened “Miller’s on Kinzie,” also a steak house. Finally, in 1987, Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse opened on the northwest corner of Block Number 1, and it’s been hitting home runs ever since.

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Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse Today

Harry Caray's Italian Steakhouse, located in the former Chicago Varnish Company building, designed by Henry Ives Cobb
Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse today

Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse is, of course, a restaurant, and a fine one at that. Any place that’s survived the tumultuous River North dining scene for more than thirty years does so for good reason. It’s more than just a celebrity name on a gorgeous building. It’s Holy Cow-worthy good food and good service.

This is a place that’s also very much rooted in the past. CEO Grant DePorter may be even more obsessed with the building’s history than he is with the Chicago Cubs, and he wrote a book on the team. The first floor of the Chicago Varnish Company Building is decorated with sports memorabilia, celebrity photos, and a bust of Harry Caray, the famed baseball announcer, himself. Head towards the stairs to the basement, though, and you’ll be stepping back in time.

The walls of the staircase are lined with photos and newspaper clippings telling the stories of the building’s past inhabitants. Annette, Frank, Al, Ed O’Hare the scoundrel and Butch O’Hare the hero – their stories are told through these windows to the past.

At the bottom of the stairs, there’s an actual window cut into the brick wall. Inside is Frank’s address book, filled with names and numbers of prominent people who would make the Outfit’s activities go a little smoother. There’s also a vault, within a vault, within a vault. This belts-and-suspenders safe shows signs of multiple attempts to crack it. 

Hunter, Walton and Co safe found in the basement of Harry Caray's
Hunter, Walton and Co safe found in the basement of Harry Caray’s

Elsewhere in the basement, DePorter discovered secret rooms, another vault, bricked-over doors, and a passageway that led to the underground tunnels favored by bootleggers and gangsters.

Underground room hidden under Harry Caray's Italian Steakhouse
Underground room hidden under Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse
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Bricked-over room. What secrets are hidden behind?

He’s documented, and publicized, all of it, and one media appearance garnered the attention of Nitti’s descendants. They’ve kept in touch and provided DePorter with a priceless collection of the property’s titles, going all the way back to Dr. Alexander Wolcott, which he keeps in his office – in Frank Nitti’s old apartment.

Harry Caray’s Italian Restaurant is located at 33 W. Kinzie, Chicago, IL 60654, Stop in for their chicken vesuvio, prime steaks and chops, and housemade chips with a side of Holy Cow! Play your cards right and you might even get a look at Nitti’s Speakeasy, a private event space complete with a secret entry.

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