Taste of Joliet

The family-friendly Taste of Joliet, a summertime staple staged at Joliet Memorial Stadium, features a slate of musical acts, a carnival midway and food vendors. (May 24, 2011)

Hot dog vendors outnumber baristas and poker trumps yoga in Joliet, a city of roughly 147,400 people who play as hard as they work.

"If you can't find something to do here, you're not looking," said Thomas Giarrante, long-time barber and firefighter but newly minted mayor. Downtown Joliet includes Silver Cross Field, two casinos (one on the outskirts), the Rialto Square Theatre, museums, the University of St. Francis and one of the Joliet Junior College campuses.

Forty-five miles southwest of the Loop, Joliet is the county seat of Will County. The bustling suburb was long dubbed the "City of Steel and Stone." Thousands of immigrants got jobs at Joliet Iron Works (now a historic site), while others dug limestone from the banks of the Des Plaines River to build the formidable buildings that anchor Joliet's downtown. The "Steel Man" lives on as a statue at Joliet Central High School.

As homebuyers flocked to Joliet's new subdivisions during the housing boom, it grew to become the fourth-largest city in Illinois. Some found work in the city's new entertainment venues while others accessed nearby highways to reach employment hubs in DuPage County. Now these subdivisions are Joliet's "suburbs," though the recession stunted their growth.

In the heart of Joliet, street gang activity has been a persistent problem. Mayberry, it's not. But a strong police presence and business and neighborhood collaboration help keep students and workers safe during the day and tourists at night.

Giarrante faces challenges and has made public safety a top priority. Even so, he keeps a sense of humor, as barbers tend to do. You can spot a newcomer, he said, by his JOLLY-et mispronunciation. "We're jolly," he said. "But we're JOE-liet."

History

Named for explorer Louis Joliet, the city was labeled "Juliet" on some early maps, according to Heather Bigeck, curator at the Joliet Area Historical Museum. "Was it a founder's wife's name? A misspelling? No one knows for sure," she said. Its feminine moniker was dismissed when the city incorporated as Joliet in 1852.

History buffs frequent the Joliet Area Historical Museum, which is stop No. 5 on the Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway. Historical side trips include the church that was the country's first Dairy Queen and the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie that was once a bomb factory. Historical markers along the I&M Canal towpath take you back in time.

Joliet's historic buildings include the Collins Street Prison (Joliet Correctional Center) and the Women's Ward, both shuttered now. Add the nearby Stateville Correctional Center, and it's no wonder some outsiders spell the city's name p-r-i-s-o-n.

As Joliet matured, its demographics changed too. Once heavily Slovenian, Irish and Italian, Joliet in the 2010 census was 67.5 percent white, 27.8 percent Hispanic, 16 percent black and 1.9 percent Asian.

Things to do

Crowds attend the Joliet Slammers minor league baseball games and races at the Chicagoland Speedway and Route 66 Raceway. Gamblers know Joliet for its Harrah's Joliet and Hollywood Casino Joliet.

Families fill the park district's Splash Station water park, golf courses, ice arena and indoor and outdoor baseball facilities. The Forest Preserve of Will County offers old-fashioned activities such as fishing plus new-fashioned ones like geocaching, a high-tech treasure hunting game.

Outside the former Collins Street Prison is the Old Joliet Prison Park, where visitors can learn about its notorious bad guys and the movies and television shows that were shot here ("The Blues Brothers," for one).

Eateries in downtown Joliet include independently owned Irish pubs, while chain restaurants encircle the Westfield Louis Joliet mall.

The city's roster of events includes the GR2011 Celebrating Sustainability Festival, farmers' markets, concerts at the Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park, Kidzfest, Taste of Joliet (Kenny Rogers, Loverboy and KC and the Sunshine Band are scheduled to perform in June at Memorial Stadium), Independence Day fireworks show and the Light Up the Holidays Festival & Parade.

Housing

Joliet experienced a housing boom on its outskirts during the 1990s and into the early 2000s, when its population grew by nearly 40 percent. Building came to a screeching halt at most developments with the recession, which left a sea of mostly two-story three- and four-bedroom houses. Some sold and some are still on the market.

Old-house aficionados favor the Upper Bluff Historic District, where stately manses date back to the 1800s. Between this central district neighborhood and the fringe developments are plenty of 1950s ranches, some updated, some not.

Recent sales have ranged from a 100-year-old Colonial that went for $45,500 to a 2005 brick two-story that sold for $440,000.

Active new-home developments include D.R. Horton's NeuFairfield, where single-family two-story houses start at $198,000 and raised-ranch duplexes start at $154,900. William Ryan Homes bought the Lakewood Prairie development, where semi-custom single-family houses start at $179,000. J. Lawrence Homes is building semi-custom single-family houses at Silver Leaf for $169,000 and up.

Transportation

Commuters can reach Chicago on Metra's Rock Island and Heritage Corridor lines. Amtrak trains stop here en route from Chicago to Springfield. Residents also benefit from the Pace bus service for Joliet and the surrounding area.

Interstate Highway 80 takes residents east-west, while Interstate Highway 55 and Illinois Highway 53 head north-south. Drivers to downtown Chicago can spend about an hour or more getting to work.

Schools

Joliet is chopped into 12 elementary/middle school districts. In addition to Joliet Public School District 86, they include those from neighboring towns, including New Lenox and Oswego.

High school districts are not quite as complicated. Most of the students southwest of the Des Plaines River attend Joliet Central High School or Joliet West High School. Other students attend Lincoln-Way West High School in New Lenox, Minooka Community High School, Oswego High School, Plainfield High School or Yorkville High School.

Parochial high schools include Joliet Catholic Academy.