Mob's influence extended up Milwaukee Avenue

Jeff Danna/ staff reporter 02/12/10 01:19 PM 81 hits

Wheeling may have still been a sleepy, small town in the 1920s and ’30s, but its establishments were big business for Chicago’s most notorious gangster.

During the Prohibition era, Al Capone ran the largest illegal liquor-supplying racket in Chicago, but his operation’s reach extended far beyond the city’s borders into neighboring towns and states.

Wheeling was one such town where Capone’s influence loomed large, likely because in the days before Chicago’s expressway system, Milwaukee Avenue was the main highway that could take Capone out of Chicago to his hideout in Couder Ray, a small town in far northwest Wisconsin.

Rich Larsen, a Prospect Heights resident and Al Capone historian and enthusiast, said the gangster would conduct business with many of the taverns and hotels along Milwaukee Avenue in Wheeling. For Capone, the suburban location was as much logistical as tactical.

“Back in the 1920s, to get to Wheeling, it was like a two-hour trip. When you got to Wheeling, you were in the boonies,” Larsen said, adding that suburban police were easier to bribe than city police.

One of the establishments where Capone supplied alcohol was Alexander’s Hartman House, a restaurant that was later replaced by Bob Chinn’s Crab House.

“You look at the south end of the building, and there’s like a watchtower, and Capone used that to look for prohibition agents coming up Milwaukee Avenue from Chicago,” Larsen said.

But perhaps the most well-known of the purported mob hangouts on Milwaukee Avenue was a country club called Columbian Gardens—known today as Chevy Chase.

From the time it opened in the 1920s until 1977, the club was privately owned and operated, said Joe Lofsness, superintendent of food and beverage at Traditions at Chevy Chase. Today, the club is owned by the Wheeling Park District, and workers like Lofsness are happy to tell what they know about the club’s history.

“Because of the alleged owners and connections, there’s not much documentation,” Lofsness said.

A 1986 newspaper article detailing the club’s history is printed on the back of Traditions’ menus. It explains that in 1936, Lake County’s reputed “gambling czar” purchased the club, changed its name to Bon Aire and turned it into a massive gambling and entertainment venue.

The illegal activities allegedly continued into the 1940s when a “showman and gambler” named William Johnson operated the club.

“There are tunnels in the basement,” Lofsness explained. “They don’t go anywhere; they’re blocked off.”

One such tunnel, Lofsness said, led under Milwaukee Avenue toward the Des Plaines River. He said the park district believes the tunnels were once used as escape routes from authorities and passages for smuggling booze. After all, Lofsness said, structures weren’t built with many fire exits in the 1920s.

Park district workers also discovered what seems to have been a vault in the basement. Today, the small room with a thick, metal door is the country club’s paint room.

Larsen said Capone’s brother, Ralph Capone, supposedly supplied much of the liquor to the country club, and the 1986 article reports that Al Capone himself was known to be a patron of the club.

But the notoriety of Milwaukee Avenue didn’t end with the Capone era. It continued through the early 1960s down the road near the Wheeling-Northbrook border at a place called Villa Venice, allegedly controlled by Chicago mobster Sam Giancana.

Villa Venice was known as a Las Vegas-style restaurant whose heyday was ending by the early ’60s. Yet in 1962, to the surprise of many people in the area, the biggest stars in the world—Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin—performed at this off-the-beaten-path venue.

“The Villa Venice was a neglected grand dame of a restaurant located alongside an eastern bend in the Des Plaines River at 2855 Milwaukee Avenue, a no-man’s-land of unincorporated Cook County where the only law was the relatively forgiving and usually remote county sheriff,” wrote John McDonough of The Wall Street Journal and DownBeat Magazine in the liner notes to “The Summit: In Concert,” a live record of the Rat Pack show. “When the news broke on September 18, 1962, that the biggest stars on Earth would be coming to this remote suburban outback, event the local show biz cognoscenti were caught by surprise.”

Legend has it that Sinatra asked Giancana’s to help Sinatra’s U.S. Senator friend John F. Kennedy win the West Virginia primary. In exchange, Sinatra agreed to perform at Villa Venice.

While Villa Venice itself appeared unremarkable, the real action was taking place a couple blocks away at a nondescript building called the Quonset Hut, Larsen said. Shuttles would take patrons from Villa Venice to the Quonset Hut, where they could gamble the night away.

The Villa Venice era, though, came to a close several years after the Rat Pack performance.

“It burned down in March 1967,” McDonough wrote. “One of those kitchen fires that have a way of breaking out at 4 in the morning when the insurance is paid up.”

By Jeff Danna reporter

Photos by Jeff Danna


Wheeling Historical Society and Museum staff reporter

Part of Milwaukee Avenue’s transformation from a dirt path to a modern commercial highway is due to the contributions of various ethnic Chicagoans.

For Germans, Poles and Puerto Ricans, Milwaukee Avenue has served as a path of migration from the crowded city to the more spacious territory north of Chicago—and later, the northwest suburbs.

It was both a path that signified upward mobility and a desire for distance from other immigrant groups arriving in the city, explained Dominic Pacyga, a Chicago history professor at Columbia College Chicago and author of “Chicago: A Biography.”

In the road’s early years, it was the Germans who settled along Milwaukee Avenue, operating the farms from Wheeling to Gurnee. But the Germans long ago assimilated, and to this day, one of the most visible ethnic groups to settle along Milwaukee has been the Poles, said Pacyga, who also authored the entry on Polish immigrants in the “Encyclopedia of Chicago.”

Chicago, home to the largest Polish population outside Warsaw, boasted a few Polish neighborhoods. One of the biggest was on the Northwest Side, where Milwaukee Avenue was the main commercial corridor.

While many Polish institutions, including the Polish Roman Catholic Union and the Polish Museum of America, are still based in the old neighborhood in Chicago, others have moved out to the suburbs, along with many residents and businesses that once lined Milwaukee Avenue in the city.

“As they went into the suburbs, it was natural to follow Milwaukee Avenue, just as it was natural to follow Archer Avenue on the South Side,” Pacyga said.

Other Polish institutions, such as the Polish National Alliance and the like the Polish Women’s Alliance moved their operations northwest with the Polish populace.

The Poles have not completely assimilated into the suburbs like the Germans, Pacyga said, and many Polish-owned businesses still line Milwaukee Avenue in Niles.

And the migration of immigrants continues along Milwaukee Avenue. Puerto Ricans, who have inhabited inner city neighborhoods along the road like Logan Square are following the path of their forbearers and moving northwest, as a generation of young professionals has begun to move into the neighborhoods in search of affordable housing.

“First, it was the Germans in the 1880s, basically to get away from the Polish,” Pacyga said. “The poles moved up Milwaukee Avenue to get away from the Germans, and the Puerto Ricans have moved up Milwaukee Avenue to get away from the yuppies.”

It is these people, those who traverse Milwaukee Avenue and inhabit the communities along the road, who have kept the route a commercial and cultural corridor 175 years after it was surveyed.

Their experiences contribute to the character of the road—a road that is at once a Main Street and a path to someplace better.

By Jeff Danna reporter