Rolling Out

The Cigar Culture: Big Smoke in Chicago’s Little Italy

The Cigar Culture: Big Smoke in Chicago's Little Italy
Ralph (owner) of Ralph's Cigars and his assistant, Zarinah Ali, exchange witty banter while enjoying a Romeo & Julieta Vintage IV and a Raspberry Champagne Cognac House Blend. Photography by Ingrid Larkin.

There’s something really special occurring in the heart of Little Italy.

One would think the residents and patrons of this quaint Italian village would be running for AC and a vat of Italian Ice but what I discovered was far more invigorating and equally fascinating.

As I walked through the door of Ralph’s, a charming brick and mortar cigar shop on Taylor Street, the sweet seducing bouquet of cognac-dipped cigars with hints of cedar and peppery spice greeted me. Soft swirls of smoke gently wafted through the air like perfect summer cumulus clouds. “Would you like a Mocha mini Corona?” asked Zarinah Ali, cigar specialist and lovely 23-year-old UIC theater performance grad whose demeanor was as warm and hospitable as that of a Southern Belle.

I imagined it challenging for a beautiful, young African American woman to be taken seriously in an industry known for being male-dominated, moreover underrepresented by the fairer sex.

“In the beginning it was very difficult. I didn’t smoke cigars so it was very difficult to remember a Corojo from a Connecticut wrapper … but after while I started realizing what I liked and what I loved and found my way from there,” Ali states.

She credits a former shop associate and Ralph himself for her in-depth knowledge of the leaf. “A young pretty woman isn’t expected to smoke,” she says, regarding the reaction from some men who initially see her with a cigar.

“Sometimes they see me and still ask for Ralph,” she says. But to the regulars she’s family, and nothing deters her spirit. “My passion is the service aspect. I love helping people find what they need. The culture’s become a part of my life.”

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