Jane Lynch sings the praises of Illinois, her home state

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Last month, Jane Lynch began appearing in two places at the same time: in New York, in the revival of “Funny Girl” on Broadway, and in the Midwest, in regional and national advertisements for the Office of Tourism of Illinois. For the “Middle of Everything” campaign, the award-winning actor walks around the prairie state wearing a flippant blue beret and a cheerful expression. Acting as the official tour guide, the Illinois native comes face-to-face with Honest Abe at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, gets her kicks at the Hall of Fame and road museum 66 from Illinois to Pontiac and waddles with penguins at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Additionally, Lynch, who directed two of the four commercials, compiled a list of her favorite places to eat, sleep, soak up the culture and, of course, laugh. We reached out to Lynch, who is temporarily based in New York, via email about his affections for his home country, which include an allegiance to the Chicago Cubs but not deep pizza.

The following answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is your connection to Illinois?

A: I was born in Dolton, Illinois and went to Illinois State University in Normal where I earned an undergraduate degree in Theater Arts. I did theater in Chicago after college, worked in many theater companies with no participation (i.e. for free), and finally got my touring equity card with Second City and performing in shows at the Steppenwolf Theatre.

Q: How has the state shaped your interests, your creativity and your sense of humor?

A: In theater terms Chicago is a city of actors. Many self-employed people start their own business. Actors come from all over the country to Chicago to create their own work and blaze their own trails. There is a purity to the arts and theater in Chicago. It’s made for the art. You don’t hear much about “Oh, I hope this gets me a sitcom.”

A day’s drive from Chicago, exploring a very different Illinois

Q: Did you enjoy going to college a few hours south of Chicago?

A: I went to school in Normal, and it’s a small town full of cornfields. It’s quite rural and simple and it’s a perfect location for a university. Bucolic and far enough from home to feel almost exotic!

Q: Where do you live now and how often do you return to Illinois?

A: I have lived in Santa Barbara, California for 30 years. My parents, who are both deceased, have never left the southern suburbs of Chicago, and my sister and brother are raising their families in the southern suburbs. My aunt Marge, 91, still lives in town. I spend every Christmas in Chicago and go back often. My sister and I just bought a house together in Hinsdale, about 20 miles west of downtown Chicago.

Q: What makes Illinois such a special place to visit?

A: Illinois has it all: a big, beautiful lake that almost looks like an ocean, untouched prairies, and a state capital, Springfield, which is full of Abraham Lincoln memorabilia. Illinois also contains Chicago, one of the most beautiful and cosmopolitan cities on the map. Unlike New York and Los Angeles, Chicago is known for its down-to-earth people – a small-town feel within a big city. An ordinance has been created that prohibits building on the beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline, so our beaches are plentiful and stretch the length of the city.

Some of the finest architecture is found in Chicago. Frank Lloyd Wright lived and worked in Oak Park, a nearby suburb, and many of his famous homes are located there. Some of the most iconic Bauhaus structures in the world are also found in Chicago. The architecture boat tour along the Chicago River is exhilarating. The World’s Fair was held in Chicago in the late 19th century, and two of the buildings still stand, as they were so beautiful it seemed a shame to tear them down. The fire at this time also destroyed most of the north side near the town, meaning anything new had to be built of stone or other non-flammable materials. More wood!

Q: What misconceptions do people have about Illinois?

A: That it is a flat meadow. It’s not. It’s beautiful, filled with breathtaking hills and water features, lots of places to camp and sightsee, some of the best food in the world, and really nice people.

In the footsteps of Frank Lloyd Wright in Illinois and Wisconsin

Q: If Illinois was a person, what sense of humor or personality would he have? Could it be the life of the party, dancing on the coffee table; the prankster, pouring alcohol into the hot tub; or the polite guest who cleans up the voids?

A: Illinois is too varied to be one person. But a person can find many different things to do. It’s the Midwest. There is a simplicity and a splendor in the landscape. Some of the funniest people are from Chicago, not just Second City. There seems to be a very good sense of humor and a lack of pretension in Chicago and Illinois. It is also a virtual crucible. I heard once that Chicago has one of the largest Polish populations outside of Warsaw. My grandparents came from Ireland to Chicago. There are Swedish neighborhoods and African-American neighborhoods, Russian neighborhoods and Chinese neighborhoods.

I asked Lynch to share some of his favorite Illinois attractions. Here are his recommendations:

♥ Avanti’s Italian restaurant on the campus of Illinois State University. Come for the pizza bread, stay for the pizza bread.

♥ Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford.

♥ Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

♥ The Ulysses S. Grant House in Galena. Galena itself is a quaint and beautiful town, and well worth a visit.

♥ Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Oak Park, a beautiful suburb west of Chicago.

♥ A Chicago Architecture Boat Tour on the Chicago River.

♥ Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. Outdoor baseball lives in Wrigley, in the heart of Wrigleyville.

♥ Crystal Lake Park, right next to the University of Illinois at Urbana campus.

♥ The Illinois Shakespeare Festival, an outdoor summer theater at the Ewing Theater in Bloomington, right next to the Illinois State University campus.

♥ Pizza Aurelio in Chicago Heights. The best Chicago style pizza is not a deep dish. It is for tourists. The real Chicago pizza is thin crust with a tangy, sweet tomato sauce, and no one does it quite like Aurelio.

♥ The Ann Sather restaurant on Belmont Avenue in Chicago. Authentic Swedish cuisine and a North Side institution.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.

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