This one meant a lot to us. As the years have passed, it has grown to mean even more.
On a Saturday evening, just five days before Christmas in 2014, we traveled farther than we’d ever gone before. It came at a time it was truly needed, too: capping the end of a difficult week, and preceding one we anticipated to be even more difficult. On top of that, we had a strong feeling that our time in Chicago was winding down, as well, so a sort of grieving process had begun to set in. The city that had meant so much to us–that had defined us, helped us grow–would soon become a part of our past.
The only way to cope for us was to escape into the city and region, to see as much as we could, to experience as much as possible. Just the night before, fueled by the same emotions, we had explored Chicago’s Southwest Side, finding one of the best pizzas we’ve ever had at Palermo’s on 63rd. We were sad, nostalgic, and restless. . .needed know more about this part of the world–to understand it as much as we possibly could–before we let it go for good.
So we drove to the farthest extreme of what “Chicago” was for us–far out into the portion of Northwest Indiana known as the Region–making this, at the time, our longest trip for pizza by far.
We were looking for Gary’s Miller Beach neighborhood, a small community in the extreme northeastern corner of the city.
We were looking for Ono’s Pizza.
Before it disappeared. Or, at least, before we did.
Miller Beach, home to Ono’s for decades, stands apart, but can never really be extracted from Gary, one of the true steel capitals of the world. Gary, Indiana was founded in 1906 as a company town for United States Steel, whose Gary Works would soon become the largest steel mill in the world. Rapid residential development followed.
Miller was founded as an independent town just five years later, but Gary, a booming “magic city” built from seemingly nothing, quickly outpaced the community and annexed it in 1918.
With the promise of good stable blue-collar jobs, Gary drew thousands of people–black and white, American and immigrant–searching for a piece American dream. It was at times an uneasy mix of peoples and cultures, but the booming steel and related industries served as the glue holding the entire civic venture together. By the 1960s, the city’s population had swelled to over 178,000 people.
Gary’s fall, as documented by many and experienced by far more, has been just as dramatic as its rise. Though U.S Steel remains a major employer in Gary, the decline of the American steel industry in the 1970s and 1980s took a substantial toll on the city. Many related industries closed and thousands workers, many of them Gary residents, lost their jobs, which seemed unthinkable decades before. Concurrently, white flight reared its ugly head, helping contribute to a local net loss of nearly 100,000 residents from the city’s 1960s peak. Today, approximately 85 percent of the city’s 76,000 identify as African American, and as a community they have to work extremely hard to attract investment. We saw some of this on our trip–empty buildings, empty lots, very quiet streets, all in a place platted and constructed for far more people; it’s hard to avoid. Many people have written about Gary, and there’s little more that we can say, at least not without deep research. The abandonment of many areas make the city a subject of deep fascination to academics, city planners, and urban explorers, alike. The very real racial and economic disparities that have plagued Gary–not to mention the stigma–have proven difficult to overcome.
But our destination was located in a quiet corner of town that generally does not fit the typical Gary, Indiana narrative. Like Hegewisch in relation to Chicago, Miller has retained somewhat distinct, even small town character. It was never as densely-populated as many other parts of the city, and did not hollow out thereafter to quite the same degree. And while most of Gary’s adjacent Lake Michigan coastline is covered by massive, dirty industries, much of Miller, particularly along the lakefront, has many residential properties insulted by beaches and parkland, most of which is part of the famous Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. To the south, the Indiana Toll Road somewhat cuts the southern section Miller–and the neighboring community of Aetna–off from the rest of Gary. Furthermore, Miller has attracted new residents in recent years and has even caught the eye of the New York Times travel section. So, Miller, a community of about 9,000 people tucked in the corner of Gary, felt to us much more like a very quiet beach town than neighborhood in a partially abandoned and struggling small city.
Personally, our journey to Ono’s Pizza in Miller stands as one of our absolute favorite–and most defining–trips. For us, the distance and route traveled, the circumstances, and the destination all combined for something special. Something so big has created a weight to write something extremely detailed, sourced, compelling, etc. But as time passes, we realize its more important–at least to us–to just tell our story, to let the world know that we were there, if only for a fleeting–though unforgettable–moment. There’s little chance we could possibly convey how much this trip meant to us, anyway. As our trip went from a week ago, to a year ago, to eventually four years ago, we realized it was time.
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Destination set, far to the east of Chicago, we prepared or a long slow drive that would end many miles southeast of our apartment. The most commonly used ways to get to Gary from Chicago are Interstate 94, commonly known as the Borman Expressway, which runs through the southern portion of the city, and the Indiana Toll Road, the state’s stretch of Interstate 90, with runs just north of downtown Gary. We took a slower, more scenic route. We started out as usually did heading to Southeast Chicago by heading south on Lake Shore Drive. Only this time we kept going.
Whiting, the first city just across Illinois-Indiana state, had been a stop for us several times in the past. We’ve had great pizzas there at Dino’s and Palermo’s, and enjoyed a delicious hamburger at the local favorite, Schoop’s. Our final destination was farther down the road, of course, but we couldn’t help but make a pit stop at Arnie’s Dog House.
Arnie’s, located at 1503 Indianapolis Boulevard, just a little over a mile across the state line, serves a basic dog, often called a Depression Dog, which comes with chopped onions, relish, mustard, and sport peppers. Like many bits of Chicago culture, the reach of the Depression Dog extends into The Region (only farther down the road do you start to encounter Detroit-style Coneys). And the dog from Arnie’s Dog House was excellent: it had a great snap and this dog got plenty of tasty fries for the Hound.
After leaving Arnie’s, we continued southeast on Indianapolis Boulevard, then made a left on Columbus Drive. From there we drive through the heavily-industrial East Chicago, home to the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal. Industry in East Chicago is dominated by the former Inland Steel, today’s Indiana Harbor Works run by European corporation ArcelorMittal. The steel mills of Southeast Chicago may be gone, but mills in Indiana are still alive, and the Indiana Harbor Works, the parent company notes, comprise the largest integrated steelmaking facility in North America. And accordingly, East Chicago in that brief drive presented a very working-class vibe. We were truly in The Region.
From Columbus Drive we veered right on to Airport Road, so named because it runs adjacent to the Gary-Chicago International Airport, a name that unfortunately does more to suggest grandiose dreams rather than day-to-day reality. Without a doubt, this route was one of the loneliest, discomforting trails we’ve traveled looking for pizza. So dark, so empty. The airport, too, had little “international” or cosmopolitan glitz, only a small collection of unremarkable buildings and a runway next to the long, dark road ahead of us. Just to the north outside of our car window, we could feel the looming empty enormity of the area’s marshy landscape. It felt like they could swallow us whole, or pull us north into cold darkness of Lake Michigan, if we could survive the molten fiery hell on earth of U.S. Steel’s furnaces. A place to disappear, whether you wanted to or not.
At the intersection with the Indiana Toll Road, Airport Road becomes 4th Avenue, the appearance of modest brick homes tells you are in a working-class community–or what was once a middle-class community in the 1950s. The grid of Gary appears. Following route 20 for several miles (and crossing another portion of the Interstate), we passed the home of the Gary SouthShore RailCats minor league baseball team, the fittingly-named U.S. Steel Yard. Downtown Gary, once packed with a stores and shoppers, seems like a very lonely place. That said, it seemed like it was on its way up. Slowly.
We tried to reflect on the musical heritage of Gary on this trip, as well. Popular 1950s doo-wop vocal group pioneers the Spaniels and the Five C’s were based in Gary while holding down jobs in the mills. Founders of the seminal Vee-Jay Records label, Vivian Carter and James C. Bracken, came from Gary, and released some of the most popular and important blues, jazz, r’n’b, and rock ‘n’ roll records of all time. More recently, rapper and Gary native Freddie Gibbs’s tales of the street paint bleak pictures reflecting the economic and racial strife witnessed throughout the city’s last half century. Jlin is a former steelworker and electronic music producer whose adventurous records have ventured far beyond her original Chicago West Side-born footwork framework and received nationwide attention. Oak Lawn, Illinois native Robert Rolfe Feddersen, who now lives in Northwest Indiana, has drawn upon Gary for inspiration. In an interview regarding the release of 2013’s excellent American Loser, he spoke of getting robbed at gunpoint in Gary. He also wrote a song about a dedicated local resident who lived on stop on his milk route, “Black Oak, Indiana,” a neighborhood in southwestern Gary that was annexed in 1976. Other musicians from Gary include blues artists Big Daddy Kinsey, Jimmy Reed, Deniece Williams, and more. And, of course, there’s how “Gary, Indiana” entered middle America’s consciousness in the 1950s and 1960s.
Without a doubt the most famous musical exports from Gary are Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 (not to mention Janet and the rest of the siblings). Their father, Joe Jackson, worked at Inland Steel in Indiana Harbor as a crane operator before managing his sons, and their first single and local hit, “Big Boy”, was released on the Gary-based Steeltown Records.
Two other great singles from Gary include Erroll Gaye’s “You Don’t Want My Love,” and, especially, the gorgeous soft Philly soul-styled “The Bridge of Love,” by the Lost Weekend, released on their own label.
From downtown Gary, we pulled onto route 12. We missed an opportunity to get a hot dog at Arman’s in Aetna, which has a wonderful sign with a cartoon hobo holding a bindle and some balloons. Sure we had just had Arnie’s, but had we known Arman’s was there, we would have stopped. We followed the Dunes Highway east until we reached Lake Street, and made a left, crossing the railroad tracks at Miller Station, a stop on the South Shore Line. After a long drive, we finally found Miller Beach. Or, as local apparently know it, Miller.
Lake Street, Miller’s primary commercial strip, has an almost quaint small town feel, with numerous one- and two-story commercial buildings home to taverns, restaurants, and art galleries. From what we could tell, Lake Street seemed to be doing well, with landscaped trees, some nice independent shops open for business, and a few young revelers out for a night on the town. Local efforts for an arts district appeared to have paid off. We were especially intrigued by the vintage signage of the closed Ming Ling Restaurnant as we continued to travel north toward the beach and the lake. Soon the commercial buildings gave way to interspersed homes, then after crossing under a railway overpass, beautiful parkland. Increasingly, we began to feel like we not in an not an industrial powerhouse but instead a quiet, hidden wonderland.
After some more homes and apartment buildings, we found, in the northernmost portion of the west section of Miller, our destination, glowing in the dark night, straight through a time warp. The luminescent red, yellow, and white sign with faded lettering acted as a beacon, while red neon that lined rooflines cut through the blackness of the night and a charming strand of Christmas lights framed a kitchen scene in the front window with warmth. Ono’s was open for business. To say that this was a magical experience would be a huge understatement. This was–already, if only for the journey and the arrival–one of our greatest trips.
Concerned we wouldn’t make it before the 9 p.m. closing time, we had not called the order in like usual. So, we pulled up and parked in front, right near the front window. Lake Michigan was just steps away, and I could feel the sands of the dunes underneath my feet as I got out of the car, both on street and the sidewalk. Then, through the springy screened front door I walked into the cramped, mostly empty shop. Before me sat an older, though vibrant, man in a faded t-shirt and baseball cap. His chair pointed toward the door, but more importantly, it faced an old, fairly loud television.
As the man looked up from the TV, I could tell he was trying to figure out who I was but could not place me. If I remember right, he managed a reluctant hello as I pretended to know what I was doing.
This was indeed a pizzeria, as the counter and kitchen visible from the front window attested, but it also appeared to be a minor store. Shelves contained a sparse collection of goods.
I turned the corner and walked to the opposite end of the very small building. The wood-paneling gave it such a homey feeling, like being at grandpa’s house, or in our case, a big hug after coming in from the darkness and cold outside. After a quick look at the menu, I spoke to a woman at the counter behind a small window opening and ordered. Half sausage and pepperoni, and half Sicilian, please.
“Can we do that?” I asked, in an attempt not to offend some sort of obvious local rule.
Sure, the man said from the chair, briefly looking away from the television.
I asked what was on the Sicilian pizza and he mentioned sausage and pepperoni then glanced over the rest, “then you’ve got your peppers. . .” He wasn’t giving up the full recipe–either purposely or for the fact that he thought he said enough for me to understand–but either way it was clear he was very proud of this pizza.
“Would it be all right if I took some pictures?” I asked the woman.
She paused a second, then quietly–and reassuringly–nodded her head, looked toward the man who was staring at the television, and said, “Ask him first.”
Despite not recognizing me, somehow we got to talking. I don’t even remember how it started, but for some reason, a switch flipped, and I was more talkative than I had ever been in a situation like that. I think I could sense I needed to try harder for this one.
Is it okay if take a few photos for my blog, I asked. I told him we had driven specifically from Chicago to try the pizza at Ono’s. His eyes lit up.
“Are you one of these guys who travels out to different places and writes about them?” the asked with a smile and deep curiosity, almost proud that a person like that would visit his place.
Well, yes, I answered, but I’m not always good at getting around to the writing part. I told him our concept and about Ernie and he thought that was pretty neat. “He’s out in the car right now!”
The man’s name was Sam. We were now friends.
As Sam headed to kitchen to get to work on our pizza, he waved his hand and said, “Take as many pictures as you like.” His wife, Kathy, had taken my order. She was a little no-nonsense at first, but warmed up the longer I was there.
How long will it take?
“Bout ten to fifteen minutes,” Sam said.
It appeared that here in the Region, just like in Chicago, cheese, sausage, mushrooms are at the top of the menu. No mention of pepperoni at all, though it was available. While we’re sure you could get extra of any ingredient, the ones that mattered were listed: “Extra Cheese” and “Extra Sausage,” and they cost the same. Ono’s also offered Chicagoland favorites hot dogs, Polish sausages, and Italian beefs and sausages. Hamburgers, pulled pork, ham & cheese sandwiches, and corn beef sandwiches were on the menu, too. Interestingly, this sign, posted sometime in the 1970s-1990s, offers burritos, though it was unclear if they were made in house. No price was listed, so maybe they were no longer offered. “Tombstone Pizza”?
Within just a couple of minutes, Sam had constructed our pizza and covered the top in sausage and half of it with giardiniera, a key ingredient on Ono’s Sicilian pizza. Once the mozzarella, pepperoni, and other toppings were added, it was ready for it’s ten to fifteen in the oven.
While Sam was working, I took the opportunity to step outside. The darkness of Lake Michigan was just a short walk away. It felt like we were the only ones on this dusty, lonely road to who knows where, just me and the Hound.
This quiet little seaside shack stood as our only outpost. A very small residential area of just a few interspersed buildings and lots of trees surrounded the building, here in Miller’s far northwestern corner, but the glow of the Ono’s sign made us feel like we were in the only place in town.
Miller is, after all, in many ways, a vacation beach community. Year-round residents make up the majority of Miller’s population, but the injection of life that summer undoubtedly brings had long passed by this cold December Saturday night. No wonder, as we would later find out, legendary Chicago writer Nelson Algren would choose to hide out in this community after the success of his novel, The Man With a Golden Arm, in the early 1950s. Even looking south on Lake Street seemed lonely. The sandy sidewalks made us feel like we were nowhere near the formerly bustling–but still sizeable–Gary, the mighty industrial powerhouse of the Calumet Region. We certainly did not feel anywhere near Chicago.
One little local did stop by to greet us, though.
Too bad the Hound had to sit tight in the back seat. No doubt could feel the warm glow from the neon, though. He certainly smelled the wonderful aroma coming from the kitchen. For the very first time, I considered getting him out of the car to introduce him to our new friends. I wish I had. At least he was in full, easy view. I walked back into the tiny shop.
Pizza in the oven, Sam sat back down to watch TV and chat. Ono’s had been around for a long time, Sam said. It was originally a hamburger stand, he said with a big smile, which a counter and stools. His family purchased it in 1953. They started selling pizza in 1962.
“Been doing this over 60 years.”
We talked about the other pizza options in Miller. I mentioned Miller Pizza Co., which we passed on Lake Street in downtown Miller.
“Yeah, that’s one.” He seemed neutral, offering no impression of the place.
He spoke positively of Flamingo Pizza. Flamingo opened farther south at 42nd and Broadway in Gary in 1941, then moved a few times before landing in Miller in the 1970s. It is the oldest surviving pizzeria in Gary and probably the state. Sam said they made a pretty good pizza.
“It’s passable,” he said. “About a 7.”
It wasn’t a backhanded compliment. It was matter of fact. He really thought their pizza was good. His response instead referred more to how proud he was of his own pizza more than anything else. He, after all, had decades of pizzamaking experience, too. But it was insistence on only using the very best ingredients that set his pizza apart from the others. He seemed annoyed at the corners other places seemed to cut. Sure, it cost him a little more to deal with a good supplier in Chicago–which noted proudly–but he said it was worth it.
And just like that, our pizza was bagged up and ready to take home. It seemed like we had just gotten there.
We talked just a little more. Sam recommended that we try the Italian beef, too, noting with pride that it was slow cooked prime rib that he sliced himself.
“Now I know they have some good beefs in Chicago,” Sam followed up with a smile, as if I were a respected representative of the “beef capital.” If he only knew I was in awe of him.
I said, you know what, I’ll take a beef, too. How long does it take?
I can’t remember what he said–it wasn’t that long, just a few minutes–but for some reason I felt the pull of the road back to Chicago. Our time, after all, was increasingly limited. So, I passed on the sandwich, but it’s a decision we regret.
Luckily, we had what we had come for already in hand.
“You’ll have to call me and tell me what you think of the pizza.”
Okay, no problem!
Never heard that request before. Why does he want to hear from me?
I thanked Sam and Kathy and we said our goodbyes. This was the first time I really spoke to a pizzeria owner in depth on one of our trips. What a gift it was. It’s almost as if the conversation lit a path before us that we’d never seen before.
“Now be sure you let me know how the pizza is,” Sam emphasized, seemingly almost concerned that I wouldn’t make the call.
I would, I promised. And with that, we left with just a glimpse. The bright lights of the tiny lakeside side shack faded into darkness behind us.
The drive home was a long one. Instead of the slow route, we found the toll road. Halfway through the trip, the neon lights of the Skyway beckoned us home.
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Back at home in Logan Square, we could not believe the experience we had just had. And it wasn’t over yet, either.
Kathy had written our simple order along the bottom corner of the bag, allowing the thin paper shell to act as a kitchen ticket, carrying case, and a receipt at the same. I added another name in the interest of accuracy.
The carryout menu listed the name as Ono’s & Jo’s Pizza House, though there was no indication on any other signage that the place was called anything other than Ono’s Pizza.
“In Miller It’s Ono’s.”
Unsurprisingly, the menu focused on the Chicago area classics: cheese, sausage, and mushrooms. Other toppings were available, but they were listed at the bottom in almost an “other” category. Aside from “Everything” pizza, “The Original Sicilian Pizza,” with hot or mild peppers, was the premium choice. And, we would find out, with good reason.
Ernie had waited long enough.
Heated up just a bit, the cheese melted beautiful. This was high quality mozzarella. The hot peppers were incredible. And there were definitely pieces of garlic in there, too.
It smells good, but you can’t have any of this part, buddy.
Why did we only get a medium?
Delivered from Gary, Indiana to Chicago, Illinois, this pizza was absolutely incredible.
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In the years since our visit in December 2014, we’ve occasionally come across information that has filled in the Ono’s story. The Northwest Indiana Times, we found out, had profiled Ono’s and other Miller restaurants in 2013, and about a year after our visit, a Tribune reporter spoke to Sam. These articles helped square up our memory of what said to us. A few historical documents and newspaper accounts helped, too.
For instance, we found out that thirty years ago, the business almost vanished for good.
But the story before that is even more interesting. Sam’s given name was Salvatore Rizzo and he was born at Mercy Hospital in Gary. We can’t help but wonder how Sam would feel that we managed to find his birth certificate. The information here, though, is too good to pass up.
Sam’s father, Joseph, was born in Mississippi and was employed as a truck driver for the WPA. He later was employed as metal worker for U.S. Steel. His grandparents were Sicilian immigrants from the city of Palermo, and he and family had lived and worked in businesses throughout Gary. His sister, by his account, looked just like Elizabeth Taylor. His mother and his aunt, Kate Massa originally bought a “coffee and food shop” at 720 North Lake Street in Miller in 1953. Sam told me they sold hamburgers and had a counter with stool in there. Before it was Ono’s, it was the Beach Box.
Crucially, Sam’s uncle Tony Rizzo, a firefighter by day, taught him how to make pizzas at the family-run Ricochet, one of Gary’s beloved pizzerias. Gary’s 1959 city directory highlights the family’s business ventures (Ricochet, Beach Box), but also their connections to U.S. Steel, the lifeblood of Gary. Sam, who at that time appeared to involved in his first marriage, lived in Gary’s Glen Park neighborhood while working as a clerk at the Beach Box.
Pizza did not enter the picture at the Beach Box until 1962, when Ono’s Pizza became a Miller tradition. The fondly-remembered Ricochet disappeared thereafter and has been gone for many years, but in a sense the pizza recipe, or at least something very similar, lived on at Ono’s. There are some interesting family connections to some notorious events that should be mentioned, but operating well-loved businesses like the Ricochet and the Beach Box seemed to be a particularly strong focus of the extended family.
And the name of the pizzeria? Ono was Sam’s uncle on his mom’s side of the family, Onofrio Penzato; Jo was his mother. Here they are, Ono and Jo in the 1920 Census, the sources for the name Ono’s and Jo’s.
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A couple days after our visit, Ernie and I had a promise to keep. I nervously dialed the number.
“Ono’s,” answered Kathy, with a detached tone.
“Hi, I came in on Saturday. I was calling to talk to Sam about the pizza.”
“Hold on,” she said to me.
“It’s Josh. He’s calling about the pizza.”
“Josh, the guy with the dog!”
“Hello?” Sam said.
Then I told him the truth. That pizza was absolutely fantastic. One of the best we had ever had. He seemed happy. Not elated, but pleased. I told him I would have to come by and try a beef sometime. He agreed.
It’s almost if I told him something he knew already.
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I had a feeling we would never be back.
After our trip to Ono’s in Miller in December 2014, our lives moved on.
In the next two months, we visited over 15 pizzerias. On my last day of work, I had Pequod’s for lunch, and John’s for dinner. We also had bunch of hot dogs and Italian beefs. There were a few bars in there–old favorites and new discoveries–too.
And at the end of February 2015, among the frozen snow, with some tears, we said goodbye to Chicago.
In St. Louis, we jumped right in and moved forward, but we have never forgotten all the places we visited in Chicago, Chicagoland, and The Region. We will never forget Ono’s Pizza. We certainly will never forget Sam.
Our lives moved forward, but it was always comforting to know Ono’s was there. But then one day it wasn’t.
Ernie and I were very saddened to discover that Sam, pizza maker to generations of people in Miller, passed away in 2016. I remember him saying that he was doing his best to keep the pizza tradition alive in Gary, even after being the business for over 60 years. When he delivered the statement, he rubbed the back of his head and stared at the TV, looking right through it, seemingly unconvinced by his own words.
Maybe he knew the business would not live on after he was gone. That’s what happened, after all. When Sam left, so did a Miller institution. Ono’s Pizza is gone.
But it has lived on vividly in our memories. This trip, we cannot stress enough, meant so much to us. We so badly needed a chance to disappear, if only for a short evening. Unexpectedly, we were reminded of the beauty of life–bright neon lights; faded, though reassuring signs; warm spoken words–that can lie down a long, dark, lonely roads. Sam, Kathy, their pizza, Miller, Gary, and the road there and back helped us find it.
Ono’s Pizza was located at 720 North Lake Street, Gary, Indiana 46403