Obama-Mania: Tourism Business Booming in Obama's Chicago

Windy City and its merchants tell tourists about new president's hometown roots.

November 28, 2008, 9:26 PM

Nov. 29, 2008 — -- Despite the cold weather and biting wind, out-of-town guests, as usual, on Thanksgiving weekend, are hitting the sites in Chicago, America's third-largest city -- including the Sears Tower, Wrigley Field and the Lake Michigan waterfront.

But this year, they are hitting some newly ascendant Windy City hotspots -- including Hyde Park Hair Salon & Barber Shop, Manny's Deli, 57th Street Books, Valois Cafeteria and Medici on 57th -- all allegedly frequented by hometown boy Barack Obama, who was elected president three weeks ago.

The signs are everywhere: Obama-mania is here.

"I definitely think it's great for Chicago that he's from here," said Dan Raskin, son of Kenny Raskin, owner of Manny's Deli, where Obama made a much-publicized lunch stop just last week. "It gives people something else to want to see when they're here."

From delis to barber shops and business offices to bookstores, visitors have been seeking out the Illinois lawmaker's favorite Chicago stomping grounds, sending business spiking throughout town.

"It's a big jump," said Antonio Coye, manager at the Hyde Park Hair Salon & Barber Shop, where the president-elect went to have his close-cropped hair trimmed until just a few weeks ago.

The city is not about to miss out on the tourist gold mine. Chicago's official tourism Web site lures travelers to "Presidential Chicago: Experience the city the Obamas enjoy." The Illinois Bureau of Tourism has launched a three-day tour of the "President-elect Obama Trail," taking visitors to 14 attractions from the state capital of Springfield, where Obama launched his presidential campaign, to his Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago.

Of course, tourists can't exactly walk up to Obama's front door at his historic Kenwood red brick house, bought by the family in the summer of 2005. The street is cordoned off, guarded by Secret Service and Chicago police, who stand watch over the area. Even the Obama press corps is kept in a bus down the street, yards away from the residence.

But visitors can go get their hair cut at Coye's barber shop, which Obama has frequented for more than a decade.

"We have a lot of Europeans and people from different countries coming in just to get their hair cut by Barack's barber or in Barack's barber shop," Coye said, citing a "big spike" since Election Day, with about five people a day coming in, as well as numerous others driving by to take pictures.

"We try to get it as close as possible," said Coye, on duplicating the Obama 'do.

With all the newfound attention at the salon and his increased security, Obama can no longer go to the barber shop. Instead, he has his stylist go to his friend Mike Signator's place in the nearby Regents Park apartment buildings, where Obama goes for his hour-long morning workouts.

Not only do tourists come by, but so do vendors hawking Obama gear -- such as one man seen walking into Coye's barber shop recently selling wood carvings engraved with the words, "Barack Obama and the Book," accompanied by a picture of the president-elect and the Holy Bible.

"Hats, pictures -- just everything you can think of, they try to sell," noted Coye.

Not far away, Obama's favorite bookstore, 57th Street Books, is another popular Hyde Park haunt.

Business also is booming at Obama's favorite neighborhood eateries, including the historic Valois Cafeteria.

"It's been good," said manager Tom Chronopoulos, estimating that "maybe 50" tourists come in every day.

Visitors to Valois frequently ask for "The Obama Special" -- egg whites, bacon and hash browns -- which Obama still eats about five times a week, sending in an aide to pick up his breakfast at about 7:30 most mornings, according to Chronopoulos.

"He used to come, but he's been busy," noted Chronopoulos in the understatement of the century.

The day after Obama's election victory, Chronopoulos said the cafeteria offered Obama's typical breakfast to diners for free, with one exception: scrambled eggs instead of egg whites.

"A lot of people don't eat egg whites," he noted.

"I remember one time he came in, just ordered his lunch, sat by himself, said 'hi' to people," Chronopoulos recalled about an Obama visit three years ago. "He seemed like a normal guy, just a regular Joe."

An autographed photo of the president-elect, along with a business card from his Senate office, now hangs on the back wall at the cafeteria.

"To Valois, Thanks for the great eats!" Obama signed it.

Just down the road a few blocks, another eatery makes a more blatant display of Obama's business. Medici on 57th hawks $18 t-shirts that read, "Obama Eats Here," and sells $35 cutting boards with the carved words, "I voted for Obama in 2008 -- Together we will change the world."

"We've sold over 1,000," said Medici's manager, Mattie Pool. "I just sold my last men's shirt."

"At least 25 people a day" come in asking for what Obama dines on, Pool said.

"I think some of it has to do with people being in his stomping grounds and coming in and wanting to know what he eats," she said. "But he's like everyone else. He mixes things up."

One of his favorites, along with the breakfast omelettes and bacon cheddar burgers, is the "Garbage Pizza," complete with pepperoni, sausage, Canadian bacon, ground beef, green peppers, mushrooms and onions.

Doug and Wendy Sibery of Sleepy Hollow, Ill., saw on television that Obama liked to take his wife Michelle to the eatery.

"If it's good enough for Michelle Obama, it's good enough for my wife," said Sibery, who naturally asked for -- what else? -- the "Garbage Pizza."

"Pan or thin crust," asked his waitress, wearing, of course, an "Obama Eats Here" t-shirt.

"What does Obama have?" responded Sibery.

"He has the pan," came the server's reply.

"So that's what I had," he said. "It was wonderful. A little pricey, but very good."

And very big, too.

"I had the small and it was huge," Sibery noted. "I don't know how he stays that thin."

"He has good taste in food," quipped one neighborhood customer named Jennifer.

"I hear he works out a lot," observed Pool.

Another regular patron named Stan Zerlin, who comes in about five times a week with his wife Betsy, gave the restaurant a poem about the president-elect that hangs on the wall:

"In the not so distant past / South Chicago was cast / As a place not particularly pleasin' / But from that humble place / Began a great race / That transformed / the political season.

"On the shores of Lake Mich / Loomed large a grand wish / And the cry / Yes we can / Yes we can / That cry grew quite loud / It enraptured the crowd / And elected our first / Black American."

Obama's daughter Malia has also left her mark on the eatery. In green crayon, she followed a restaurant tradition of scrawling her signature onto an upstairs wall.

One server recommended that your reporter head over to another neighborhood attraction: the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan's house.

"It's only two blocks away," suggested the waiter. "You're already there."

Walking down the Hyde Park streets, the city has hung signs on lampposts that read, "Congratulations, Chicago's own Barack Obama: President-elect of the United States of America," with an accompanying artist's rendering of Obama emblazoned with the mantra, "Yes We Can!"

The lamppost signs quickly caught the eye of Patrice Crowley, a tourist from Pennsylvania.

"I was just shocked at how quickly their pride has expressed for monetary reasons and just for civic pride," she said. "I thought that was really wonderful."

Crowley also noticed a drugstore chain selling Obama apparel, too.

"I was just so impressed that even Walgreens would sell things like Obama sweatshirts," she remarked.

Crowley and her friends spent the afternoon walking around the leafy University of Chicago neighborhood, where Obama once taught at the law school.

Just blocks away, toward Lake Michigan, is the Obamas' modest old apartment in East View Park, where they lived for 12 years before moving to their present Kenwood residence.

Beneath the midday winter sun, a homeless man slept in the grassy apartment's courtyard, not something anyone will see anytime soon outside the Obamas' current home on Greenwood Ave.

Heading north along Lakeshore Drive, tourists can make their way past the sprawling Grant Park, where Obama addressed 250,000 elated supporters at his election night rally.

South of the Loop, Chicago's central district, sits Manny's Deli, a Chicago institution where the president-elect stopped recently, much to the excitement of Dan Raskin.

"It was just a chill going through everyone when he walked in," Raskin recalled.

Since then, Raskin said, "Our tourist traffic has definitely picked up." The eatery was even added as a stop on Obama-related bus tours.

"A lot of people ask what he ate," noted Raskin. "He had corned beef and cherry pie."

But the president-elect's three sandwiches and two pies came at a price of almost $50, so be prepared.

"He's a great guy," said Raskin, sitting near an autographed photo of Obama and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, signed during Obama's visit last week.

One patron asked this reporter if Obama was coming back into the deli, but sadly, it was just a writer hungry to try the famous corned beef. However, key Obama aides, such as incoming White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and senior adviser David Axelrod, are regular customers.

Further north toward downtown, visitors can stop at the site of Obama's current transition headquarters, a nondescript high-rise called the Kluczynski Federal Building, now heavily guarded by armed officers.

The Obamas' favorite eateries are not limited to their Hyde Park neighborhood. The president-elect is a known aficionado of the Mexican hot spot Topolobampo, which sits alongside Bayless' Frontera Grill, a more affordable Mexican attraction. (This reporter can recommend the chicken breast in mole sauce and apple cinnamon mojitos.)

Bayless was once rumored to be a candidate to accompany Obama to the White House.

But even when the president-elect resides in the Oval Office, rest assured the lawmaker's hometown will still be full of tourists trying to trace his steps, high-caloric as they might be.

Just make sure you work out as much as he does.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events