Upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer and given a limited time to remain with us, Mike Gentile contacted the Taylor Street Archives to include the Gentile Pharmacy in the chronicles of the legendary Taylor Street. Following is the final draft…completed just days before Mike died. Gentile Pharmacy, located on the north east corner of Taylor and Racine, left its footprint on the Taylor Street community. Gentile Pharmacy is included in and preceded most of the institutions that defined the legendary Taylor Street. Those institutions include Sheridan Park, the CYO, Our Lady of Pompeii, Jane Addams’ Hull House, Guardian Angel Church, etc. Gentile pharmacy anchored the western boundary of what came to be known as the Hull House Neighborhood. During the Camelot days of the legendary Taylor Street, Gentile Pharmacy, along with Sheridan Park, stood as bastions at the threshold of the Jane Addams’ Housing Project, a failed experiment to integrate the neighborhood.
Joseph Maulella opened his pharmacy, which later came to be known as Gentile Pharmacy, in 1890. The drug store affected the community in many ways, but most importantly it acted as a social hub for Italian immigrants. A large wooden bench sat over a long radiator at the front of the store. It was the Taylor Street version of community gatherings around a hot stove. The drug store attracted many people who sat and gossiped for hours. The three pharmacists spoke Calabrese dialect Italian allowing for the Italian immigrant to feel at home in the store.
During that same year, 1890, the historic Hull House, sent out its first invitation to the community. It was written in Italian and signed Signorine Jane Addams and Ellen Starr. At both ends of Taylor Street’s Little Italy, the Italian immigrant was made to feel at home. On the eastern portion stood the Jane Addams’ Hull House with its complex of 13 buildings and a summer camp (Bowen Country Club). At the opposite end stood Gentile Pharmacy with its wooden bench over a long radiator at the front of the store. Both serving the immigrant population.
The following chronicles the history of this iconic pharmacy. Joseph Maulella, uncle to Mike Gentile, owned the original pharmacy. The pharmacy attracted people from all over the city because it was known for its expertise at compounding prescriptions. They had three pharmacists, Joseph Maulella, Mike Gentile Senior (Big Mike) and Mike Tristano (Little Mike). Most drug stores had only one pharmacist.
During the prohibition era, the basement of the store had a unique usage. Drug stores were the only source of medicinal alcohol. The pharmacy received more than their share of medicinal alcohol. The excess alcohol was stored in the basement and then distributed through underground tunnels to apartments on Taylor Street. Folklore tells us that the alcohol was used as a base for bathtub gin, a popular commodity during prohibition.
After Joseph passed away in 1949, Mike Gentile took over the business. Following the death of Mike Gentile in 1963, Mike Gentile’s son, Michael (Little Mike), took over with the help from his brother Rich. It was then that they changed the name to Gentile Pharmacy. It was an easy decision to change the name to Gentile, as it was a tribute to Michael and Rich’s father. The business solely became Michael’s when Rich decided to pursue a career in the dry cleaning business.
The east end of Taylor Street, which had been almost entirely Italians with a scattering of Mexican families, was demolished in 1963 to make way for the UIC’s Circle Campus. Sheridan Park and Gentile’s Pharmacy were spared. Of the 13 buildings, only the original Hull House building was spared. The west end of Taylor Street (west of Racine,1200 west, to Ashland, 1600 west) had a similar composition of Italians and Mexicans with the exception that it also included the Jane Addams’ housing project, which, by the 1940s, had evolved into an all black housing project. It was then, when the UIC emerged during the 1960s, that the pharmacy experienced its most challenging time. The neighborhood that the Gentile Pharmacy had serviced was in the midst of a transition. Michael knew that, in order to stay in business, he needed to cater to all groups that resided in the neighborhood; e.g., Italians, Hispanics, and blacks. Those were ethnic times and ethnic pride often escalated into ethnic bigotry.
To survive as a business, Gentile Pharmacy had to establish an environment that welcomed all ethnic groups in the neighborhood. As a solution, Michael, with the help of Mary Grace Castro, Mary Jo Iacovetti, and Emil Peluso of the Near West Side Community Committee, organized an art and food fair. The fair attracted hundreds of artists every year, but the main focus was to show the city of Chicago that this neighborhood could and did work together. Black cops sold Italian beef and sausage sandwiches. (It was appropriate during that portal of time to refer to police officers as “cops”…and Afro-Americans as “black” in the same manner as Caucasians were referred to as “white”…and latinos to be called by their country of origin.) Mexican ladies sold sweet potato pies and Italian residents sold tacos. A fair share of UIC students helped out as well. In what had once been a divisive ethnic population, there were now few, if any racial incidents… allowing the store to flourish.
Mike developed a pharmacy package for the benefit of UIC students. As a result, he filled a significant majority of the UIC student’s prescriptions and established a large student following. This, along with local business from the neighborhood, helped Gentile Pharmacy become one of the busiest independents in Illinois.
It should be noted that, early in its existence, Gentile’s was famous for its soda fountain. (Most drug stores during that era had soda fountains.) The drug store was equipped with an extraordinarily beautiful soda fountain. It served green river on tap and delicious malted milk shakes. Gentile’s was also noted for its creative ice cream sundaes. In the late 1950’s, the soda fountain became obsolete as drug stores brought in more front end products. Chains started to expand into large stores that contained many non-pharmacy related items. This forced pharmacists to also act as businessmen. It was the beginning of the evolution from small independent pharmacies to large chains.
Today, Gentile Pharmacy is now Gentile Wine Shop. Mike’s son, Flavio, runs it and the shop offers a large selection of the best wines in the world. People continue to stop in the wine shop and tell Flavio how much they loved the pharmacy and to tell his father hello. It is very heart warming for Mike to hear this. It is a constant reminder of how important Gentile Pharmacy remains to the community. Gentile Pharmacy will remain forever in our memory as an icon of the legendary Taylor Street…the port-of-call for Chicago’s Italian American immigrants…a time, a place and a people unmatched by any other.