Route 66 begins (or ends, depending on your perspective and journey) in Chicago, and summer is the perfect time to experience a bit of this Americana icon without having to journey all that far. Here’s how to have some family fun and enjoy the food, attractions and history found along the “Mother Road” in Illinois.
In the city
There are signs marking the route in downtown Chicago on Adams just to the west of Michigan Ave., but they are pretty battered and decorated with a lot of stickers. They’re likely not worth the trip just to see them, but if you’re already in the area visiting the Art Institute, keep your eye out and snap a quick photo.
The start/end point has changed over time, and streets became one way, making things tricky. The original beginning point was on Jackson Boulevard, which makes sense given that Lou Mitchell’s is right there. Founded in 1923, the diner was ready to feed hungry travelers when Route 66 opened in 1926. The current location was built in 1949 and the sign proclaiming to serve “the world’s finest coffee” is from then. Open for breakfast and lunch, the great coffee and donut holes at breakfast makes it a perfect place for sleep-deprived parents, and the Milk Dud pancakes on the children’s menu have delighted kids for decades. The mix of locals and travelers captures a key dynamic of Route 66.
If you’re up for a drive
Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket is located on Route 66, just off of present day I-55 and feels like a step back in time. It’s been featured in several Route 66 documentaries on travel and, like Lou Mitchell’s, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places thanks to its connection to Route 66. The fried chicken was and still is legendary (and kid-friendly) and the Route 66 sodas add to the fun.
Joliet is proud of its Route 66 heritage. Rich and Creamy, at 920 N. Broadway in Joliet, is an ice cream shop that was typical of those you’d find along the road during its heyday, and Jake and Elwood Blues of the Blues Brothers dancing on the roof next to the “Joliet Kicks on 66” sign is cool, even if your kids have no idea who they are. There’s also a 12-foot version of the Joliet Kicks sign in Route 66 Park, and the Joliet Area Historical Museum offers an interactive “Route 66 Experience” featuring a variety of cars, one of which features radio broadcasts from seven different decades.
Giant fiberglass Muffler Men statues used to dot Route 66 as part of an ad campaign in the ‘60s and you can find the 28-foot tall Gemini Giant still standing in Wilmington. He’s named for the Gemini space program and holds a rocket ship in his huge hands. He stands in front of the Launching Pad restaurant, 810 East Baltimore Street, Wilmington, which just reopened this spring and is a Route 66 Welcome Center.
If you’re up for a day trip
Pontiac, Illinois is a great destination for Route 66 aficionados and at just a few hours from Chicago, it’s a doable day trip. Two dozen outdoor murals pay homage to the town’s history, and many are devoted to what was once the nation’s main highway. The Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum is worth a visit. It’s small, which makes it great for a quick visit with kids, but chock-full of history and memorabilia that offer a peek into the past. There’s no admission charge, but donations are welcome.