Sam Toia, a third-generation Italian-American, whose grandfather emigrated from Sicily in the 1920’s, is deeply embedded in Chicago’s culinary world. As President & CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association (IRA), he advocates on behalf of the industry and its workers. In the state of Illinois alone, there are more than 27,000 restaurants, with total sales of $25.2 billion and more than 577,000 employees — nearly half of whom are immigrants.
“Immigrants are the backbone of the hospitality industry,” Toia says. “And it’s been that way for the last 100 years.” This is especially true in Chicago, where the food scene is booming and everyone from government officials to local citizens go out of their way to support immigrants who set up new restaurants.
Immigrants are the backbone of the hospitality industry, and it’s been that way for the last 100 years.”
In fact, Chicago is eighth in New American Economy’s newly released Cities Index, which rates the most welcoming American cities for immigrants. In particular, Chicago’s government goes out of its way to help immigrant entrepreneurs thrive. (They ranked especially high in the report’s Government Leadership and Equitable Access metric.)
“The Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection is always trying to help immigrants opening businesses,” says Toia, who works closely with numerous city government offices. “Thirty seven percent of small restaurant owners are immigrants. If you’re an immigrant who wants to open a restaurant, an office with bilingual staff will walk you through the steps. Immigrant restaurant owners I know say the process is seamless. The city is there to help you.”
Chicago’s general population is also welcoming to immigrants, who make up 17.5 percent of the total population, according to New American Economy. “Chicago has become even more welcoming, especially with what’s going on at the border now,” says Toia. “People walk around with buttons expressing their support.”
To Toia, protecting Chicago’s immigrant workforce is key to the survival of the city’s restaurant industry. Without that population, the industry would suffer tremendously. That’s why he says so many Chicago government officials have developed programs to support this economically-vital community.
“Immigrants helped build the Chicago restaurant industry,” Toia says. “Anyone in city government knows that they play a key role in our growth and our diversity, which is why we want the immigrant community in Chicago to know: We’ve got your back.”