Since 1972. . .and Since 1970
Every once in a while, Ernie and I get a night where we really, really want pizza. That’s not an uncommon occurrence, of course, but more often than not our long drives land us at just one of Chicago’s great pizza joints. On some nights, though, we figure why bother driving all that way just to get one pizza? Thus, we instituted the rare, but celebrated, Double Pie Night.
Our inaugural double-destination trip took us to a huge Chicagoland pizza region: the Southwest Suburbs. It’s where many important roads meet and, in a way, it’s a place where pizza joints opened to follow former Southsiders that left the city for the suburbs down routes like Cicero, Harlem, and, of course, Archer. Our destinations for the evening were located in two of the Southwest Suburbs closest to the city: the inner ring towns of Justice and Oak Lawn.
It was a rainy evening, but that didn’t slow us down too much. Our first planned stop was Fasano’s Pizza in Justice. To get there, the Pizza Hound and I avoided the expressway as we usually do and headed from Logan Square down several of Chicago’s major thoroughfares. Though Archer is a main connector to Justice–and a tried and true way to pizza glory–we chose to reach our first pizza destination by a different route, just to change it up and see more of the region.
We headed several miles south on Cicero Avenue, and once we passed Midway Airport and a number of railroad tracks, we made a right on South State Road, which runs southwest through the city of Burbank. At Central Avenue we headed south to 87th Street, where we made a right to head west. There were a couple of pizza places right near this intersection, Grassano’s Pizza, a sit-down restaurant and bar, and Papa’s Pizzeria, which was more of by-the-slice and carryout place (and apparently unrelated to Papa’s Pizza Place, which has two locations due west in Woodbridge and Bolingbrook). We got a little distracted, but decided to continue to our planned destinations down the road, even passing a location for local chain Barraco’s Pizza. So much pizza!
Heading west on 87th we passed a number of Chicago-based places: Lindy’s Chili & Gertie’s Ice Cream, Tony’s Finer Foods, and Brown’s Chicken. In the Bridgeview area around Harlem Avenue, there were even a few restaurants and markets that reflect the growing Middle Eastern communities there. Right at the Tri-State Tollway, also known as Interstate 294, we made a right on Roberts Road and almost immediately arrived in Justice.
Justice is located about 14 miles from the Loop, but is quite close to a portion of the southwestern border of Chicago. In fact, the neighborhoods of Clearing and Garfield Ridge are just a couple of miles to the northeast (up Archer Ave.), separated only by Summit and not far from the historic site commemorating the western edge of the Chicago Portage, an area absolutely crucial in determining the location of Chicago and its subsequent development as a major city. Today a town of nearly 13,000 people, the area of present day Justice was primarily rural until the twentieth century. In the 1830s and 1840s, Irish and Germans who worked on the Illinois & Michigan Canal–which opened in 1848 as a shipping thoroughfare–settled in the area. Archer Avenue bisected the geography that makes up the present-day community in the 1850s. It is very likely that there was little or no pizza in the area yet.
More Germans settled in the area after the Civil War, but growth was somewhat more so accelerated by the creation of Bethania and Resurrection cemeteries. Bethania has German roots, and Resurrection opened to serve large nearby Polish communities. Founded in 1894 and 1904, respectively, the cemeteries brought economic development in the forms of picnic groves and taverns, at a time when visiting the park-like atmosphere of a cemetery was deemed recreational. Like, say, before pizza delivery. Physically, the cemeteries occupy approximately one-fourth the community’s land area. They also loom large in popular consciousness: their dominance on landscape mixed with twentieth century automobile culture and helped lead to the popularization of the legend of Resurrection Mary, a hitchhiking ghost that wanders along Archer next to the namesake cemetery!
The area’s growth, while relatively minimal, led to the incorporation of Justice as a village in 1916. Just under 200 people, some which were Dutch truck farmers, lived in Justice in 1920. Nearby Summit grew larger in these decades, primarily due to the opening of industries such as the Corn Products Refining Company (now Ingredion) in a section of town called Argo, which supplied raw materials for the production Argo cornstarch, Karo corn syrup, and Mazola oil.
Other industries, such as the Elgin Motor Car Company, thrived after World War I. Summit, by the way, has a bunch of pizza options, highlighting its Archer pizza corridor. They include Angry Slice, a new location of Durbin’s, and a location of Benny’s. One place Ernie and I never got a chance to check out there was Chester’s Tavern and Orsi’s Pizza. There’s a nice article here about the place, and an interesting visit (and series) is documented here.
More substantial population growth in Justice proper occurred in the decades after the Second World War. By 1950 the population had risen to around 854, still a small town. But two decades of rapid suburban growth followed, no doubt accelerated by the opening of the Tri-State Tollway in 1958 and of the Stevenson Expressway in 1964. The Stevenson took the old right-of-way of the old I&M Canal (itself essentially replaced by the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal as a waterway), while the Tri-State ran from the northwest corner of Justice to the southeast corner, dividing the city at angle to Archer. Fasano’s is located in the southeast corner of Justice: east of the tollway and far south of Archer Avenue. By 1960, about 2,800 people called Justice home, but about a decade later, when Fasano’s opened in 1972, Justice was a growing community of about 9,500 residents.
Some students in Justice attend Argo Community High School, a public school located on Harlem Avenue and 63rd Street in Summit just a few blocks to the northeast of the Justice border on Archer. Founded in 1920 while Justice was still quite rural, the home of the Argonauts boasts a number of graduates that have achieved a level of fame, including a few professional athletes. For our purposes, however, the most famous alumnus is Dick Portillo, who founded the amazing Portillo’s in Villa Park in 1963. Portillo’s is now an extremely popular chain serving Chicago favorites like hot dogs and Italian beef. We can’t say we’ve ever seen a Portillo’s that wasn’t busy. After years of success, Portillo donated a considerable sum of money to his alma mater. Argo Community High is also home to WARG FM 88.9, a student-run radio station. A few years ago, they sold off a bunch of their vinyl. These types of stations have some killer stuff, but they also tend to be treasure trove of lost or simply unloved bands that have been forgotten with time. We didn’t go to the sale, but we acquired several things (often repeatedly discounted…oh, my unlovables!) via a local record store. Some pretty cool stuff! Hey, who invited Li’l Wally and Li’l Richard? All the grandmas and grandpas on the Southwest Side, that’s who!
Hey! We’re here for pizza, Ernie reminded me! Okay, okay. So, I called in the order. After a girl on the other end of the line took the order, she yelled something in the distance. What was that about? I couldn’t quite make out what it was. Right after, she gave us an estimate of when the pizza would be ready.
When we arrived at Fasano’s, it was still raining. The building’s cinderblock, sheet metal-roofed strip mall construction suggested that it might not be the original location of the pizzeria, family-run since 1972. Inside, I could tell Fasano’s does a fantastic business, so the newish building might be a symbol of success and expansion. Behind the counter off to the right was a wall with three phones, each worked by an employee taking numerous phone orders. Often, I could hear that yell I heard from a worker holding a phone–“How long?!” it turns out–to the other side of the open kitchen. A man at the pizza oven would judge the situation and reply with a time. Little peculiarities like that make different pizza places worth the trip.
There were a lot of people working in the kitchen, and no doubt this little bit of communication was necessary to help juggle as many pizza orders as possible on a busy weekend night. To see what we’re getting at, check out the photos of their busy kitchen, full pizza oven, and wall of phones on the official Fasano’s Facebook page.
It was so busy, in fact, that our pizza wasn’t ready yet, so I sat in one of the several chairs lining the wall for a few minutes. Meanwhile, I overheard a short conversation about the current season of Sons of Anarchy, and I seem to remember some inspirational or religious quotes posted on the wall, but I cannot remember for sure. I noticed they had frozen pizzas for sale in the waiting area, too, another sign pointing to Fasano’s local popularity. Within a few minutes, our pizza was ready.
With our treasure in hand, I ran it out to the car in the light rain. The hound was ready so ready for pizza that he almost couldn’t contain his excitement! But we had one more stop. After all, this was Double Pie Night! After a quick call we headed south on Roberts Road then east on 87th Street to the intersection with Narrangansett Avenue, which south of 87th Street is known as Ridgeland Avenue. This was backtracking a bit, but it was only about two and a half miles away from Fasano’s.
In that short distance, though, we were in a different town with a different story. Ironically, that second joint was one of at least three similarly-named, though unrelated establishments in Chicagoland: Phil’s Pizza. Founded in 1970, this Phil’s is younger than the one in Bridgeport and likely older than the one on the Northwest Side, and it is located in the suburb of Oak Lawn.
Oak Lawn is located to the east of Justice, bordered by Burbank and Hometown to the north, Evergreen Park (home of Roseangela’s Pizza on 95th) and the Chicago neighborhood of Mt. Greenwood to the east, Alsip to the south, and Chicago Ridge to the west. (Chicago Ridge is home to the Frontier Park Fieldhouse, site of many incredible Ring of Honor pro wrestling shows over the years. Truly an exciting time.) Oak Lawn, similar to Justice, was mostly rural until the mid-twentieth century. Photos owned by the Oak Lawn Public Library–many of which are included in Kevin Korst’s history, Oak Lawn–show a dramatically different landscape than heavily-populated suburban community of today. Germans also settled there after the Civil War when the area, commonly known for its signature trees, was known as Black Oaks. The first subdivision there was platted in the 1880s next to a station for the Wabash Railroad, which gave the rural residents access to Chicago markets, and somewhat accelerated development in the area, which by then was known as Oak Lawn. Though a post office was established in 1882, Oak Lawn did not incorporate until 1909 when the area had around 300 residents, some of who were Dutch truck farmers, just as was the case in Justice.
The town continued to grow steadily in the following decades, but the population absolutely exploded after World War II due to white flight from Chicago. Oak Lawn grew from 8,751 residents in 1950 to over 60,000 residents just two decades later. Most economic development occurred along major roads such as 95th Street while new subdivisions sprouted along connecting streets.
Part of the community’s incredible growth could be attributed to successful promotional efforts, particularly the Oak Lawn Round-Up Days. The annual celebration began relatively small in 1949, but just a couple of years later drew reportedly 100,000 attendees. Visitors flocked to the celebration, and new residents flocked to the subdivisions of Oak Lawn. Check out this great scrapbook from the Oak Lawn Public Library with lots of newspaper articles about the Round-Up Days. The great online section focusing on local history also has some fantastic videos of the Round-Up Days as well as of other significant events in the city’s history, such as the tornado that struck Oak Lawn in 1967.
The event, advertised through Chicago media outlets, tapped into the nostalgic western craze sweeping the nation during the post-war era–as well as local folklore regarding bandits and horse thieves–with a large parade, activities such as “prospecting” in “mines” for prizes, and the performance of a shootout between villains and law enforcement.
Sponsored by the Oak Lawn Chamber of Commerce, the Round-Up Days were also a boon to local businesses, most of which were concentrated along 95th Street. Many advertised sales and specials during the event.
The Old West meets modern suburban living, too!
Make no mistake, there was property for sale in Oak Lawn.
There were also a number of contests, drawings, square dancing, a queen coronation, and often a masked “mystery rider”, who was a well-know local resident in disguise.
The event was a victim of its own success, as big crowds became difficult to deal with, leading to the discontinuation of the Round-Up Days in 1958. But the event certainly left an impression on working-class folks looking to leave the city for a family-friendly community. The area’s incredible growth, coupled with the evolving suburban ideal, helped change Oak Lawn from a somewhat rural community to a city of comprised primarily of commuters and their families. Though the population has declined from the highs of the 1970s, Oak Lawn remains one of the largest suburban communities in Chicagoland.
The Round-Up days came before Phil’s Pizza showed up on the scene in 1970, though Phil’s arrival was no doubt linked the recent massive population growth. Styles had changed. Westerns didn’t capture the imaginations of children and adults like they had before. Concurrently, Oak Lawn evolved and became a quintessential American suburb of the seventies and eighties, as seen in this glorious photo album, also courtesy of the Oak Lawn Public Library.
Phil’s shares a brick strip mall with a modestly-sized appliance store and a barber shop. The building, which has brown roofing along the top edge, resembles the Barraco’s on 87th or even an old Burger King or McDonald’s from the ’70s or ’80s. What’s the name for this type of architecture anyway? A few small parking spots in the front highlight the automobile-centric world in which the business was born, but also a more restrained one compared to today’s gigantic multi-car lots. Whereas Fasano’s newer building was setback quite far from the street with numerous parking spots, Phil’s was still quite close to the street, reflecting Oak Lawn’s place in the gradual urban development of Chicago. It’s rural past hard to find, most of Oak Lawn exists still within the steady grid of the much larger city to the east, with numbered streets running east to west and named streets running from north to south (generally) alphabetically. Sure, there are a few mildly curved streets, but they serve as exceptions to the rule. The lawns may be lusher and the houses may have larger floor plans with modern flourishes, but most streetscapes feel very much like an extension of the Southwest Side.
Inside, Phil’s has tile floor and main counter, with no actual seating for dining in that I recall, though I could be wrong. The wood-paneled walls are covered in sports plaques and photographs, some faded with time, mostly comprised of local baseball teams that Phil’s had sponsored over the years. Just like they did at Fasano’s, workers wore matching red t-shirts and polos for the most part. It seemed much quieter than Fasano’s, though, but we had likely just missed the evening rush. Our pizza was ready right away. We grabbed it and headed home.
As with many of the Chicago suburbs, Oak Lawn has a few notable former residents. Homegrown musical acts, in particular, fit a suburban vibe: Kevin Cronin, lead singer of REO Speedwagon, grew up in Oak Lawn, as did members of 2000s hard rock band Disturbed. Oak Lawn was the original home of Pumpkin Studios, run by former American Breed member (“Bend Me, Shape Me”) Gary Loizzo. At Pumpkin, South Side-bred Styx recorded some of their blockbuster albums in the 1970s and ’80s, including the (in)famous song “Mr. Roboto”!
Chicago-area power pop rockers The Kind recorded their self-titled debut there in the early ’80s, which is a pretty cool. Ernie and I can imagine them cruising over for some squares of delicious pizza from Phil’s in between takes of “Loved By You”.
Two of the four members of ’90s alternative hard rock band Loudmouth, responsible for their minor hard rock hit “Fly” (featured in the movie Varsity Blues, the ’90s less-serious version of All The Right Moves) were from Oak Lawn, as well.
Loudmouth has been largely inactive for years, but one of those Oak Lawn natives, Robert Rolfe Feddersen, continues to release original music to this day. His album 2013 American Loser, full of acoustic-based blue collar anthems, is a particularly good. Take a listen here. He’s now a resident of Northwest Indiana, where quite a lot of Chicago-style thin crust pizza (and some slight variations) can be found.
Phil’s isn’t the only game in town, either. Palermo’s 95th is an extremely popular restaurant. We’ve never had it, but if it’s anything like Palermo’s of 63rd (Are they related?) then it must be some serious competition for Phil’s. Check Please!
Once we got home, we placed the pizzas on the table for comparison. Both came on cardboard in the popular-in-Chicagoland pizza bags with menus and tickets stapled to the end. Both showed their grease content, too.
Phil’s made a good attempt, but Fasano’s won by soaking through both the bag and the glossy menu! Glorious!
And our mystery grows stranger. So, the Obbie’s/Villa Napoli guy works for Phil’s, too? I mean, come on. Hard work or conspiracy?
The evidence: He’s on the front of the menu…
And on the back.
He’s even on the official website.
What is going on here???
Look at this proud hound!
Two amazing looking pizzas. Way to go, buddy!
Both menus had a lot of options. Pan pizzas were available at Fasano’s.
Phil’s has stuffed and deep dish pizzas as well. Sausage is king in Chicago! Both places served fried chicken, too.
Fasano’s was significantly thinner, as thin as standard-bearer Vito & Nick’s (which is located on Pulaski just a few miles to east of Fasano’s), with the toppings under a now-cooled layer of cheese. The crust was light brown, but had a bite that had likely soften since it had cooled. Phil’s, however, relatively thick and cut in bigger squares. The crust was golden. Firm on bottom, with a soft chew. Phil’s also have a heavy amount of toppings, which we like a lot. Very filling.
Ernie was justifiably proud of his pizzas.
Both of ’em.
Meanwhile, Brant Miller gave us an update on the rain.
While Rob and Allison looked out for everything else.
The hound, his mom, and I always loved the NBC 5 Chicago crew. We could always depend on them in fun times and in difficult times. And we never missed Brant’s great Fungus Wednesday segment! Just two days after our Double Pie Night, the hound’s mom made a huge move to St. Louis for a new job and to scout out the place for us. It was very sad, but that Wednesday Ernie and I found a sign that it was going to be okay…
We were happy to send her this little gift from Chicago.
Mushrooms or no mushrooms, there was still plenty of pizza in Chicago for us to discover and taste. Our trip this evening was just one of many to come.
If there’s any indication of which pizza we preferred on our first Double Pie Night, it would be the picture below. We ate some of both, but we clearly took a bigger portion of Phil’s. To our taste, Phil’s was all around a better pizza. It seemed to have better crust, cheese, and toppings, with a noticeably more prominent sauce. Fasano’s was good, too, and seems like it would be best piping hot. Our preference was just that, though. By our estimations, based on only brief encounters with both businesses, Fasano’s seemed to be much busier (it has it’s boosters), so no doubt it has many fans in the area. In fact, at the time of this writing Fasano’s 4.5-star rating is beating out Phil’s 4-star average on Yelp.
For more on Phil’s, check out this a locally-produced video. It’s a little busy compared to the relaxed treks that Ernie and I take, but worth it for the nice shots of Phil’s delicious pizza and for insights into their pizza-making process.
Now, that’s a tired hound! Our very first Double Pie Night was a huge success. We wish it could be every night. Two pizzas wasn’t too much…it was perfect.
Fasano’s Pizza is located at 8351 S. Roberts Rd., Justice, IL 60458
Phil’s Pizza is located at 8932 Ridgeland Ave., Oak Lawn, IL 60453