Welcome to My World: Chicago

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Pack up your bags, mamas! This month we're off to Chicago with Jen P from Fashionably Employed. Jen offers us a local mom's guide to the city. By the time you're finished reading you'll be ready to hop on a plane to the midwest. Or at least hop around the web to visit Fashionably Employed where you can read more about a busy mom's quest to find balance in style. Jen works outside the home and shares style inspiration beyond the basic suit and we love her accessible approach to what mama's wear.

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The Shopping Mama: What is your favorite FREE thing to do with your kids in Chicago?

Jen: Although our summers are short-lived, we love heading to the beach as a family. Ohio Street Beach and Oak Street beach are right downtown with easy access for both residents or visitors. The sand is perfectly soft between your toes even though the water might be a bit chilly. I also don't know too many beaches with a large city skyline as the backdrop. If you're in the area during the summer, it's definitely worth checking out.

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If you're in town during the winter, the beach won't be a great option. We have a blast taking our boys skating in the downtown parks. Adjacent to Grant Park and Millenium Park, home of The Bean, Chicago recently added the amazing Daley Park to its impressive collection of public green spaces downtown. It has yet to receive its finishing touches, but the substance of many of the large play spaces is complete. The parks offer two ice skating options. Millenium Park has a traditional rink, but I love the skating ribbon in Daley Park. The brand new quarter mile ribbon makes taking the family for a casual skate so much more fun. Although renting skates costs a few dollars, hopping on the ice in your own skates is perfectly free! Just enjoying these free parks is well worth the trip even if you don't go for a skate.

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TSM: Where is the best place to get hot chocolate?

Jen: As the name implies, Mindy's Hot Chocolate offers amazing hot chocolate. This sit down restaurant in the Bucktown neighborhood (about ten minutes on the Blue Line 'L' from downtown) carries a relaxed and trendy vibe. Kids are certainly welcome though it's more of an adult option. With little ones in tow, I'd recommend grabbing a cup of hot cocoa from Ghiradelli. It's located just off Michigan Avenue and nearly across the street from the American Girl and Legoland stores mentioned below.

TSM: Where is the best place to eat with kids?

Jen: For a traditional Chicago food experience, stop in to Portillo's. This greasy spoon features hot dogs and Italian beef. The casual atmosphere absorbs any extra kiddo energy, and they're sure to enjoy something on the menu. If you're a dessert family, grab a piece of their chocolate cake. It's great! Interested in an adult beverage? They also serve giant beers.

Chicago's also known for it's deep dish pizza. My favorite spot to snag a hefty pie is Lou Malnati's. Beware though that most of the deep dish pizza spots often have very long waits. While the restaurants are very kid friendly once you sit down, you might want to make some plans after you put your name on the waiting list to entertain the little busy bodies. The pizza joints generally don't take reservations and waits are often in excess of an hour during busy summer nights.

TSM: What is your favorite museum?

Jen: I love the Science & Industry Museum. It's a bit off the beaten track but well worth a visit. It's massive, so don't plan to see the whole darn thing in one day. The building was part of the World's Fair Grounds in 1893 and even today is impressively enormous. Locals and tourists alike love and appreciate the amazing exhibits in the museum. So especially if you visit during a time of year when the weather may not be particularly cooperative, this is a great option to explore one of Chicago's best museums.

For a slightly more accessible option, the Children's Museum is great too. It's right near downtown at Navy Pier and has tons of great kid-friendly exhibits, which is no surprise. We bring our boys there regularly.

TSM: What is your favorite kids store or toy store in Chicago?

Although a bit cliche, I have to suggest the American Girl Store and Legoland, both in Water Tower Place Mall on Michigan Avenue. Right next to each other, just about every little kid will get lost and fall in love with one of these stores, right?

TSM: Where is the best place to take pictures?

We've taken many family photos at Mount Olive Park, and I can't recommend it enough. No matter the time of year, you'll probably find at least one wedding party there as well. Not far from Navy Pier and adjacent to Ohio Street Beach, this park offers almost 360 degrees views of Lake Michigan. You can also get some great shots with the skyline in the background, including the John Hancock Tower.

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TSM: What is your favorite street in Chicago?

Jen: Technically this square street surrounding a park is four streets, so I'll choose East South Water Street. The LakeShore East neighborhood, comprised of high rise apartments and condominiums, encircles a gorgeous park, is across the street from Daley Park and Millenium Park, sits just a few hundred yards from Lake Michigan and is an easy walk to downtown offices. The design of the neighborhood turns a bustling area in the heart of downtown into a calm and seemingly more distant little utopia of sorts. If only I lived there...

TSM: Tell us about one of your favorite go-to spots that you won't find in any tourist book.

Jen: Chicago loves brunch! It's especially popular in summer when sidewalks fill to the brim with eager brunch goers hungry not only for food but a dose of Vitamin D from the warm, short-lived summer sun. My favorite spot, however, to grab bunch is ZED 451, which is indoors year round.

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Arrive hungry. This fancy, high end buffet style service model tricks you into filling up on the "harvest table" (appetizers, essentially) before the nine main course options even arrive at your table. Everything from duck confit French toast and charcuterie to brussel sprout salad and fresh fruit line the harvest tables. Shortly after your first trip up to the buffet, servers bring you entrees like buffalo chicken waffles, amazing cinnamon rolls, maple cajun bacon, succulent spicy sausage and ranch marinated bottom roast beef that is to die for! You won't get enough of anything because you be too full from trying everything.

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