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Chicago transplants are rooted in Tucson tradition

Inside Old Pueblo businesses with Windy City roots
Rocco's Chicago flag
Posted at 8:38 PM, Nov 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-27 22:48:14-05

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Tucson is home to many transplants who bring their own backgrounds and traditions.

One of the oldest and strongest pipelines to the Old Pueblo comes from Chicago.

Many still make the 1,400-mile move, trading dreary weather for Arizona sunshine.

Data from 2015-2019 show Illinois had the eighth-highest state migration rate to the Tucson area, and the third-highest rate among states east of the Mississippi River.

That trend started more than a century ago.

Mark Levkowitz is a native Tucsonan, but his family business is the Chicago Music Store. He says his grandparents moved to Tucson in 1919.

“All the time people come in, they ask us about the origin of the store name,” he said. “Back then, a lot of people used to name their businesses after the city that they were from. There was a New York store, and a Philadelphia store, and my family was from Chicago. So, ‘Chicago Store.’

“And the story goes that my uncle was playing in the band at Tucson High School and a lot of parents starting asking for musical instruments, and that’s how we started specializing in instruments.”

The store has since moved across the street and expanded to the East Side, all while hitting the right notes with customers.

“Back in the old days, my family used to extend credit on a handshake to just about anybody,” Levkowitz explained. “So somebody could walk in, you know, walk out with a guitar, and pay five dollars a week, something like that. And I’ve had a lot of musicians over the years come back and say, ‘You know if your dad and uncle hadn’t given me credit, I never would’ve been able to make it in the music world.’”

Music has another home at Chicago Bar on the East Side.

“Music has always been the spine of this club,” said longtime bartender Kerwyn Lewis. “I mean, seven nights a week we had live music. No other place in town had live music seven nights a week.”

Lewis started working at Chicago Bar shortly after moving to Tucson from New York City. After nearly 30 years at the dimly lit haunt, he’s seen it all.

“The original owners, Kathy and Bill, are from Chicago, and they’re the ones that named it ‘Chicago Bar,’” he explained. “It’s been here since ’78. So they were the originators. And then we had Wally Hayes, who was the owner afterwards, who was from the South Side of Chicago. So the first two owners that I know of had Chicago connections.”

Chicago Bar sign
Blinking lights welcome music lovers to Chicago Bar on the East Side.

The pandemic shut down the bar in 2020, but new ownership has the music playing again—live at least a handful of times a week.

Back in the ‘80s, the back corner of the bar served Luke del Principe’s Italian beef sandwiches.

He owns two ‘Luke’s’ restaurants in Tucson, along with one in Phoenix and several in the Chicagoland area.

Del Principe has been introducing Tucsonans to Italian beef—a Chicago staple—since the ‘70s.

“In Chicago, everybody knew you,” he said. “Out here it was like, people walk in, they go, ‘Man, that was the best sandwich I had. How long you been here?’ I go, 25-30 years.’”

Inside Luke’s Italian Beef shop on South Alvernon Way sits 25-30 years of Chicago sports memorabilia, as well as photos of friends and customers with a Chicago connection.

“It’s not like they wanna walk in and say, ‘I’m from Chicago’ and walk away,” said del Principe. “They wanna reminisce a little… If you’re from Chicago and you’re form Downers Grove, and you come down to Tucson, it’s like you’re next door neighbors.”

One of those “neighbors” is Rocco DiGrazia, who grew up on Chicago’s Southeast Side before attending the University of Arizona to study archaeology.

When his plans changed, he decided to share his ability to cook Chicago thin crust and deep dish pizza.

DiGrazia opened Rocco’s Little Chicago on Broadway in 1998.

“You know, we have people who get off the plane and come here to try to call B.S. on our pizza,” he said. “They wanna make sure that if we’re saying it’s the thing, that it is. And 99 percent of ‘em are on board with what we do. So that’s great.

“It got all of the midwesterners out of the woodwork and introduced enough people to the [Chicago] style, where now we’re considered kind of like an ‘O.G.’ restaurant in Tucson.”

Rocco's deep dish pizza
DiGrazia says people try to "call B.S." on the authenticity of his Chicago pizza.

It’s a restaurant now welcoming another generation of pizza lovers.

“I see kids who came in here when they were kids, bringing their kids in,” said DiGrazia. “It’s weird, but it makes me feel like I’m doing something right.”

That can be said for all of these businesses with Chicago roots, now firmly planted in Tucson.