The adage “old dog, new tricks” is a familiar one and perhaps one that most accurately describes Little Joe’s on Taylor Street. The Hidden Gem of Little Italy has been a mainstay on the block since 1946 and despite constant turnover around the neighborhood, Little Joe’s has put some outside of the box thinking to good use to ensure they’re operating as good as ever.
We stopped over at LJ’s last week and hung out with self-proclaimed Director of Bad Decisions Kevin Gliwa to get the low down on everything Little Joe’s has been up to since new owners Ryan Phelan and Alex Haried bought the Taylor Street favorite back in 2020. After about a year of ironing out a few details on what exactly was to become of this iconic bar near UIC, they called on Gliwa—a Chicago bar legend—to become Director of Operations and really drive the bus on a day-to-day basis.
With close proximity to University of Illinois-Chicago, Little Joe’s has always had a bit of a college bar reputation. Open late, cheap drinks, bar food, and a back patio. But running a college bar isn’t what promotes long-lasting success. Gliwa knew from day one that if Little Joe’s were to truly grow beyond what it did under previous ownership it would need a different feel; a different energy or essence if you will.
But as anyone who’s matured will tell you, growing up while still maintaining your roots isn’t the easiest thing in the world. And that’s what I was most curious to discover at Little Joe’s.
Upon first look, Little Joe’s is unassuming. Not in a bad way, it just looks like your standard run-of-the-mill neighborhood bar—exposed brick, classic wood finishes behind the bar, signage and TVs, and seating by way of barstools and high tops. They run bingo on Monday’s and Star Wars trivia on Tuesday’s. They have a dog-friendly patio with views of St. Ignatius’ football field beyond the alley way. Shit, you want to watch a game at a bar, right? Little Joe’s raised the bar and worked a deal to get all St. Ignatius’ football games streaming free inside the bar. That’s next level.
It’s common form to walk in and quite literally ask for Kevin and he’ll go full roulette for you and make something off of Little Joe’s new cocktail menu, an idea Gliwa had to promote a few personalized spirits they keep behind the bar. The Taylor Street Breeze, a refreshing cocktail made with Little Joe’s signature vodka distilled locally. Or perhaps the classic #7 Chelios, named after Chicago Blackhawks legend and friend of the bar, Chris Chelios; made with his tequila brand El Bandito.
For a real mouth party ask him for the Dr. Pepper Failed 8th Grade or a Pops PB&J shot. Or both, because why the hell not? One tastes like a drummed up Cherry Coke from one of those old school soda fountains and the latter tastes like an alcoholic’s peanut butter and jelly that finishes off like a tootsie roll. You probably read all that and were like what the actual hell is this guy talking about but trust me. I’m good with words but you just have to go try it for yourself and see what I mean.
While Little Joe’s cocktails (which fully launch on May 9th) are a hit the menu is a home run. You go to most neighborhood joints and you can expect your usual bar menu; wings, mozzarella sticks, maybe a pizza, and other variations of fried bites. Not at Little Joe’s. You want nachos…but the type of nachos that laugh at other nachos because of how much better they are? They got ’em. How about quesabirria tacos as good as you’ll get most places in the city? Yep, at Little Joe’s. Or perhaps a chicken sandwich on a pillowy bun with a passionfruit buffalo sauce that’s so good that Buffalo Wild Wings could stand to steal it to save their entire chain of mediocre chicken.
Little Joe’s secret is in the creativity. Rather than add to the white noise of standard bar food, Little Joe’s rents out its kitchen to Jocelyn Reyes and Daniel Flores of La Katrina of Gage Park, a cafe the originally specialized in Mexican dishes, pastries, and coffee off Kedzie Ave. They partnered up with Little Joe’s in 2021 and haven’t looked back.
It’s one thing that you can swing through Little Joe’s after work for a beer and friendly conversation with fellow regulars. It’s a whole other thing to pop into your neighborhood institution, one that’s stood proudly since 1946 mind you, and with savvy operations, a little stomach for risk, and a deep understanding of neighborhood trends, come up with a food and drink program that changes the game but doesn’t shock the system.
We live in a world where piggybacking off of trends has become almost ironic. And people are taking to whatever social media tells them to stay hip. But not Little Joe’s. Little Joe’s understands that to remain viable, one must mature. But that doesn’t mean changing into an unrecognizable shell of a former self. Sure, quesabirra tacos and making your own vodka could be considered ‘trendy’. 5 minutes inside Little Joe, talking with patrons and drinking with Kevin and you quickly realize that’s not what’s going on here. It’s actually quite simple.
The food is authentic because it’s made on-site by folks who have been passing recipes down for generations. The house just looks different.
The drinks are strong but delicious because they’re made with vodka that, sure, has the Little Joe’s label on it but is being distilled locally in Chicago with the same blue collar, hard working hands as the ones pouring them at the bar.
Old dog, new tricks. It ain’t a bad thing. It’s just Taylor Street, man. And Little Joe’s will always, always, be Taylor Street.