From Chicago to Tel Aviv: El Al launches direct flight from Chicago

Great news for Israelis and Midwesterners - El Al, Israeli national airline, is launching nonstop flights between Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on March 22.

ANISH KAPOOR’S Cloud Gate (better known as The Bean) in Millennium Park. (photo credit: EITAN ATIAS)
ANISH KAPOOR’S Cloud Gate (better known as The Bean) in Millennium Park.
(photo credit: EITAN ATIAS)
This has to be one of the most exciting cities in the world, with so much to offer tourists, businesspeople and lovers of art and architecture, music and food – and life itself!
As Sammy Cahn wrote in the song made famous by Frank Sinatra,
The Wrigley Building, Chicago is
The Chicago Cubbies, Chicago is
One town that won’t let you down
It’s my kind of town!
That’s why it’s such a great thing for Israelis and Midwesterners that El Al, Israel’s national airline, is launching nonstop flights between Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on March 22.
El Al and Choose Chicago, a nonprofit organization that markets the city as a business and tourist destination, hosted a delegation of seven Israeli journalists ahead of the launch for almost a week, and showed us the best of what the city has to offer. I humbly recommend that you try to include some of our highlights on your next trip, even if it’s for a second or third time!
From O’Hare, we were driven by a Windy City Limo to our hotel, the InterContinental Chicago on the Magnificent Mile. The luxury hotel, which was built in 1928 as the Medinah Athletic Club and reopened with more than 800 guest rooms after extensive renovations, is worth a tour itself – which we did with Hillary Marzec, the hotel’s outstanding historian. It even has a time capsule sealed in a copper box in its limestone exterior, containing everything from coins and historical records to a copy of the Chicago Tribune announcing the proposal of the building.
Its grand staircase ascends to a grand banquet hall, while its illuminated rotunda at the top changes colors, creating the illusion of twinkling stars.
After a welcome champagne toast and appetizers at the hotel’s Eno Wine Bar, we were treated to a meat-eaters’ feast at the adjacent Michael Jordan’s Steak House, which delivered as promised “an unparalleled dining experience elevated to a level you’ve come to expect from His Airness.” The 45-day, dry-aged prime steak I ordered was indeed cooked to perfection.
The next day we were hosted at a private breakfast on The Ledge at Skydeck Chicago by Randal A. Stancik, the general manager. It’s a perfect place to see Chicago’s spectacular views, get a sense of the enormity of the city (Lake Michigan alone is nearly three times the size of Israel!), and take fantastic photographs of one another in the glass boxes on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), which is the tallest building in the city.
We were given a guided tour of the Chicago Architecture Center, which has small models of the world’s 10 tallest buildings and a fantastic new exhibition called “From me to we” – imagining cities around the world in 2050.
Then we walked to the river and went on what was for me the highlight of the week: the Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise. A volunteer docent who knows how to tell a good story and was a wealth of information took us on unforgettable journey on Chicago’s First Lady, giving us a brilliant historic overview of the city’s rich architectural history. Billed as the best way to see Chicago, the tours are closed in the winter, but do make sure to take one if you can; you won’t regret it.
Among the buildings we saw was, of course, the Wrigley Building and the Willis Tower, but my favorite is the curved Aqua Tower, designed by a team of architects led by Jeanne Gang.
After satiating ourselves with delicious deep-dish pizza for lunch at Lou Malnati’s Gold Coast and shopping at the wonderful stores on the Magnificent Mile, that evening we were entertained by a live band playing oldies over cocktails at the Chicago Magic Lounge. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you want a hilarious surprise that features fantastic music and several top magicians, this is definitely a great place to visit.
Speaking of music, the city has just launched the Year of Chicago Music website (, which features some of this year’s top music events and festivals.
One of the top venues for live music in the city is Buddy Guy’s Legends, where you can get an authentic taste of the blues seven nights a week while sampling their classic Cajun cuisine.
The next day we lucked out with the weather and were taken on a beautiful walk on a balmy morning by a passionate “Chicago Greeter” volunteer guide through Millennium and Grant parks.
After taking the compulsory selfies at Anish Kapoor’s The Bean, we zipped off to Navy Pier, the city’s iconic lakefront wharf, where we took a relaxing ride on the Centennial Wheel – perfect for families with children. This first-ever Ferris wheel opened in 1893 and offers breathtaking views of Chicago and Lake Michigan.
Near the main entrance to Navy Pier, we had a mouthwatering smoked barbecue lunch at Harry Caray’s Tavern (I recommend the chicken, but it also has a good vegetarian burger).
That evening, the sports lovers among us had a real treat: complimentary tickets courtesy of the Chicago Bulls to watch the team play the Los Angeles Lakers at the United Center (and yes, much to the Chicago fans’ chagrin, LeBron James and his team beat the Bulls in the closing minutes). They won’t allow you to take any food or drink into the stadium, but they do have good kosher hot dogs at a stand inside.
Speaking of kosher food, you may want to try Bebe’s Kosher Deli, which has a great atmosphere with live music performances and good Jewish soul food, such as matzah ball soup; or Maoz Vegetarian in the Chicago Fashion Outlets, which has great falafel and fries. In nearby Skokie, Milt’s Barbecue for the Perplexed has really good hamburgers.
There are some 300,000 Jews in Chicago, a city with a population of some 2.7 million, and they have made their mark in many spheres, from academia to business. Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was the first Jewish mayor, serving from 2011 to 2019, while the current mayor, Lori Lightfoot, is the first African-American and gay woman to hold the office.
The next day, after breakfast at the hotel (which is first class), we visited another must-do site in the city: the Art Institute of Chicago. One of the world’s top museums, it has the very best of almost every top artist, from Monet and Renoir to Picasso and Chagall – including the latter’s beautiful American Windows.
But the highlight of our tour was an Andy Warhol exhibit, titled “From A to B and Back Again,” which had so much of the iconic American pop artist’s work on display that one could spend hours just there.
We had lunch at Portillo’s, which I do not recommend, and then prepared for the big event of the week: the El Al reception for the inauguration of nonstop flights between Chicago and Israel.
The festive reception was held at the upscale Venue Six10’s Crown Hall at the Spertus Institute on Michigan Avenue, and attended by dozens of distinguished guests, including Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, El Al’s CEO Gonen Usishkin and Israeli Consul-General Aviv Ezra, Choose Chicago president and CEO David Whitaker, and Jewish leaders.
El Al used to operate direct flights from Israel to Chicago but stopped them 20 years ago. Their resumption reflects new hope for closer ties not just between the two cities, but also between commercial companies in Israel and the Midwest – and, of course, increased tourism as well as visits between relatives and friends.
“We are excited to be here this evening, and thank you for joining us to celebrate the only nonstop connection between the entire Midwest region of the USA and a country beloved by all of us – Israel,” said emcee Sheryl Stein, the airline’s advertising, public relations and social media manager, adding that the flights “will have a tremendous economic impact on Chicago and the surrounding areas, as Israelis love to travel.”
Pritzker, who was invited by El Al to be on its inaugural flight with his wife, Mary, told the audience that he had been to Israel more than the last 10 governors combined.
“This is really a momentous day,” Pritzker said. “The work that you’ve done to open this route, to make it possible for people from the Midwest to get to Tel Aviv, to the State of Israel, is very important for the future of the state of Illinois, for the future of our nation, frankly, and our relationship with one another.”
As Pritzker pointed out, Illinois and Israel share many interests – “companies with ties to both collaborating on digital health, water technology, biotechnology and innovation across a variety of social sectors.”
The new air service, he said, would boost the exchange of university students, the growth of exports and imports in the coming decade, and provide new opportunities in the future.
“At a time when so many in the global community are developing closed-door policies based on discrimination and fear, I am proud to mark a milestone for openness and exchange right here in Illinois,” Pritzker said. “Let’s all plan our trips to Israel right now.”
As a token of appreciation, Usishkin presented Pritzker with a model of the Dreamliner due to fly from Tel Aviv to Chicago. Usishkin, a former Israel Air Force pilot who has headed El Al since February 2018, said he was delighted that Chicago would become “the crown jewel of our US network, a great city, with great people and great communities.”
Amber Ritter, the chief commercial officer at Chicago’s Department of Aviation, said she was delighted to celebrate with El Al on behalf of the city’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, and commissioner, Jamie Rhee.
“This new service... will strengthen the bonds between Chicago and Israel and expand them throughout the Midwest,” she said, noting that O’Hare had been named “the best-connected airport in North America four years running” and will be expanding its global terminal even further in 2021.
Ritter estimated that nonstop flights “will have a direct economic impact to the region, which we estimate to be approximately 70 million dollars per year.”
Whitaker made a special point of welcoming the delegation of journalists as well as all the other invited guests.
“What we love to say is, ‘Welcome to Chicago, welcome home!’ I get to share that and to add, ‘Welcome to Chicago, Illinois; welcome to Tel Aviv, Israel. Tonight we are all one!’”
Eyal Carlin, Israel’s tourism commissioner for North America, voiced the hope that the Chicago route would raise last year’s record number of more than four million tourists to Israel, of whom a million came from the US. “Remember this: While Chicago is now 38 degrees (Fahrenheit), in Tel Aviv it’s 69,” he quipped.
Midwesterners can now look forward to visiting the Holy Land without having to stop over in New York or Toronto, while Israelis can experience the delights of the Windy City’s industries, architecture, culture and cuisine.
The Tel Aviv-Chicago route is expected to be popular with both businesspeople and tourists, and bring in millions of dollars in revenue to both Israel and the US.
The three weekly flights will leave Tel Aviv on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 12 noon, and arrive in Chicago some 12-and-a-half hours later. The return flights will leave Chicago on the same days at 7:15 p.m. local time, and arrive in Tel Aviv 11 hours and 20 minutes later.
The flights on the airline’s 787 Dreamliner cost $979 for the regular tourist rate, $2,249 for premium, and $4,349 for business. Book now – you won’t regret it!
As Sinatra sang, “Each time I leave, Chicago is tuggin’ my sleeve.” 
The writer was a guest of El Al and Choose Chicago.