Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who was elected mayor of Chicago Tuesday, called his victory "humbling" and "most gratifying." He also thanked retiring Mayor Richard Daley for his lifetime of service to the city.

Emanuel said he is ready to meet the challenges head-on to "make a great city even greater." He also said he had just spoken with President Barack Obama, who sent affection for his hometown.

It was the city's first mayoral race in more than 60 years without an incumbent on the ballot and the first in more than two decades without Daley among the candidates.

With 89 per cent of the precincts reporting, Emanuel was trouncing five opponents with 55 per cent of the vote — a margin that allowed him to avoid an April run-off. He needed more than 50 per cent of the vote to win outright.

Reginald Bachus, a  51-year-old pastor of a West Side church who voted for Emanuel, said this was "a very critical time for Chicago.

"We really need a mayor who has vision," Bachus said. "It's my personal opinion everyone else would have been a manager, and I think Rahm has vision."

The other major candidates — former Chicago schools president Gery Chico, former senator Carol Moseley Braun and City Clerk Miguel del Valle — had hoped to force a run-off, but they were no match for Emanuel's momentum and money.

Chico had 24 per cent of the vote compared to nine per cent for both del Valle and Braun. Two other lesser-known candidates each got about one per cent.

Chicago's 1st Jewish mayor

The campaign began last fall when Daley — with an ailing wife, six terms under his belt and a future of looming fiscal challenges — announced he would not seek re-election.

Emanuel, a 51-year-old married father of three, will be the city's first Jewish mayor, and he brings a wealth of political and government experience.

A well-known figure in national Democratic politics, he worked for two presidents and served three terms representing Chicago's North Side in the House of Representatives.

Emanuel had just been elected to his fourth term in 2008, when he resigned to work for fellow Chicagoan Obama. It was a job he held until he resigned in October 2010 to run for Chicago mayor.

The White House wasn't new to Emanuel, because he had worked as a top aide to Bill Clinton.

During his time in Congress, Emanuel also served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and was credited with leading Democrats to victory in 2006, when they won the majority in the House after a dozen years in the minority.

The new mayor faces a daunting series of challenges, including fixing the city's finances, addressing underfunded employee pensions and confronting a shrinking urban population.

Emanuel will have to decide quickly on a politically unpalatable strategy for improving city finances that may involve raising taxes and cutting services and public employee benefits.

Daley has been criticized for allowing the city to spend beyond its means, and Chicago was not spared the pain of the economic downturn of the last few years.

The city's inspector general's office warned in October that Chicago's annual deficit was effectively more than $1 billion annually when combining recent budget deficits with the spending increases the city would need to properly fund its pension system.

Legal challenge won

The new mayor will also have to find new leadership for the Chicago Public Schools and a new police superintendent. All the candidates have talked about wanting to replace Jody Weis with someone who has a stronger focus on neighbourhood policing.

Emanuel's win capped off a campaign that included an unsuccessful legal challenge to try to knock him off the ballot.

More than two dozen objectors contended that Emanuel wasn't eligible to run for mayor because he didn't meet the city's one-year residency requirement.

Emanuel had lived in Washington for nearly two years while he worked for Obama, and his family had rented out their Chicago home to join him. Emanuel moved back to Chicago in October after Daley announced he wouldn't seek a seventh term.

The matter went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, which overturned a lower-court ruling that threw Emanuel off the ballot.