Dream Destinations

For Your Big Day

By Lindsey Gapen, Sarah Soenke, Jermaine Pigee, & Anna Girgenti

She’s dreamed of her wedding day since she was a little girl.
The flowers, the gown, the location - every detail is important and requires months of planning. Of all the components that comprise a wedding ceremony and reception, few are as important - or as challenging to schedule - as the venue.
Whether you dream of a Midwest destination wedding or a hometown setting, our area offers some spectacular options.

Acquaviva Winery Baltic Mill Barnacopia
Beloit Club Burpee Museum of Natural History Byron Forest Preserve
Creek Bend Nature Center The Edgewater Fishermen's Inn
Franchesco's Ristorante Giovanni's Restaurant Goldmoor Inn
Hickory Knolls Discovery Center Hilton Garden Inn Ironworks Hotel
Josef Barbados Klehm Arboretum Mauh-Nah-Tee-See Club
Maxson Restaurant & Riverboat Oak Lane Oscar Swan Country Inn
Prairie Street Brewing Co. Rocky Waters Vineyard & Winery Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center
The Stonegate Conference & Banquet Centre The Venue, Janesville

My Secret Crush

Acquaviva Winery, Maple Park
(Pulse Photography & Design photos)

Kelly Clayton had a crush on her older brother’s best friend, Cody Klingberg. She was attracted to his sense of humor and kindness toward others.

“We always just hung out together as friends,” Kelly says. “It wasn’t until a couple of years after college that we decided to begin our relationship.”

Cody found himself attracted to Kelly’s work ethic. “She’s dedicated to anything she puts her mind to,” Cody says.

After a year of dating, Cody planned an elaborate scavenger hunt on a chilly day in February 2015. From morning until night, Kelly opened envelopes that determined what activity the couple did next. After enjoying a romantic dinner followed by frozen yogurt, the couple went for a walk around the neighborhood with their dog, Harleigh.

When they got home, Cody said he had to get something from his truck.

“He came back with a wrapped gift, which was a picture of Harleigh and I turned into a magazine cover,” Kelly says. “It was really special. At the bottom, it said, ‘Kelly, will you marry me?’ I didn’t realize it at first, but once I did, Cody was already down on one knee. It was the best night because I wasn’t expecting it.”

Within weeks, the couple had booked their wedding reception at Acquaviva Winery, in Maple Park. They had been there before for a wine tasting and loved the property, as well as the wine. Neither Kelly nor Cody wanted a typical banquet setting, so they loved the unique vineyard atmosphere and outdoor patios, which gave the wedding a destination-style feel.

Kelly loved taking pictures at the winery and around the vineyard.

“Have your photographer scope out the area,” Kelly advises. “There is just so much culture inside Acquaviva that makes for great pictures.”

Meeting with Joe and Shelly Brandonisio of Acquaviva Winery helped to make the planning process less stressful for the couple. Though Acquaviva Winery hosts up to 100 weddings per year, Joe and Shelly made themselves available to help the couple plan their special day, which happened on June 25, 2016.

“They were so down-to-earth about everything,” Kelly says. “Joe was very thorough with his answers when he gave us a tour of the venue. Any questions I had about my vision, Acquaviva made a reality. We met with Joe in person a couple of times to go over things, and I was in constant communication with Shelly.”

Shelly takes pride in having attention to detail, whether the wedding is casual, elegant or a combination.

“We’re a family-run business, and we care about every one of our customers,” Shelly says. “We want their day to go beautifully.”

Kelly and Cody were pleased to find how much their 230 guests enjoyed Acquaviva. Kelly wishes she could relive the experience.

“It was a blast – I’d do it every weekend if I could,” Kelly says. “For anyone thinking about Acquaviva – do it. Nothing else compares.”

Learn more at acquavivawinery.com


Salem Lutheran Church, Sandwich
Acquaviva Winery,
Maple Park
Sweet Dreams Desserts, Sycamore
True Sounds Entertainment, Aurora
Pulse Photography & Design, Yorkville
The Crystal Bride, Geneva

Acquaviva Winery

47W614 IL Route 38
Maple Park, IL
(630) 365-0333

Beauty on a Budget

Baltic Mill, Belvidere
(Belvidere Park District photo)

The Baltic Mill’s unique, natural setting welcomes couples who want an outdoor celebration for their wedding day. The historic area, owned by the Belvidere Park District, provides a backdrop of calming greenery for ceremonies.

The venue currently focuses on holding ceremonies in an outdoor setting – perfect for any couple looking for a beautiful setting on a budget.

The Baltic Mill offers four wedding packages for brides and grooms to choose from. Each package includes a three-hour time block for ceremonies to commence in an area with a stage and hillside seating for guests. Larger packages include a conference room and rehearsal time for the night before. An on-site wedding coordinator is available for all packages.

Reservations are taken on a first come, first paid basis, with various times available on weekends and throughout the week. The Belvidere Park District requests that couples book the Baltic Mill at least 90 days prior to the event. However, the Belvidere Park District is willing to accommodate couples with any last minute requests if dates are available.

The venue has anywhere from 20-40 weddings per year – a significant amount considering that the season is only from April to October. The space can hold 300 guests, all on natural limestone seating. Those interested in seeing the facility can call and schedule a tour.

Learn more at belviderepark.org

Baltic Mill

920 W. Lincoln Ave
Belvidere, IL
(815) 547-5711

Puppy Love

Barnacopia, Polo, Ill.
C. Tyson Photography

Blame the dog for bringing together Chelsea and Trevor Runkle. During their freshman year at the University of Dubuque, in Iowa, Chelsea volunteered at a humane society for a class project.

“I’m a sucker, and I fell for a puppy I saw there,” she says. “I brought the puppy home to my dorm, and we’d sneak him outside to go to the bathroom. We weren’t supposed to have him there, so we contacted my friend Brandon, who told us the dog could stay there while we looked for another place to live.”

When the girls brought the dog, they also met Brandon’s roommate, Trevor. He and Chelsea shared an instant connection that only grew stronger.

“Trevor is so smart, and just a sweet guy,” says Chelsea. “He wears everything on his sleeve. Now, he’s a cop, and I’ve never met a person who didn’t like him.”

At the end of their junior year, Trevor planned an elaborate proposal, with help from about 40 family members and close friends, including her roommate.

“Our moms came over, gave us some blindfolds and said, ‘We’re going to take you somewhere, but you can’t ask where,’” Chelsea recalls. “We thought they were just up to some kind of funny outing, but when they took off my blindfold, Trevor was there on one knee.”

Chelsea had little trouble selecting a venue for their June 28, 2014, wedding. Raised in the countryside outside of Durand, Ill., she knew she wanted a rustic farm setting. One visit to Barnacopia, in Polo, Ill., was all it took.

“The only thing that was missing was my grandma and grandpa, who passed away before the wedding,” she says. “Their whole lives were John Deere, and it just felt like something from them. I was with my mom, and she said, ‘This is so your grandparents.’ We just felt them, like the barn was part of our family.”

Relatively new to the wedding scene, this unique barn-like structure is part museum, part gathering place. Its three floors include banquet space, a “drive-in” movie theater, two guest rooms and many classic vehicles – including a fleet of John Deere tractors.

Owner Gary Bocker rents the barn for wedding weekends, and barely a corner of the property went unused for Chelsea and Trevor’s celebration.

On that Friday, the couple held a rehearsal dinner at the barn, before the girls began their sleepover. On Saturday morning, the staff delivered breakfast. The couple was wed that afternoon beneath the property’s weeping willow.

The couple had many customized requests for the day, including parking their tractor collection on the front lawn.

“I could put them wherever I wanted,” says Chelsea. “When we were doing photos, I actually crawled onto a John Deere tractor in my wedding dress.”

Chelsea’s friends are now planning their own weddings at Barnacopia, and she offers one simple tip.

“Go in with a dream, because they will make it happen,” she says. “People say, ‘I want this, but it’s not realistic.’ Gary will do anything to make it happen. They even said, ‘If you want to ride a tractor down the aisle with your dad, we’ll do it.’”

Learn more at barnacopia.com


Barnacopia, Polo
ABC Catering, Rockford
C. Tyson Photography, Rockford, and Vixen Productions, Rockford
Bridal Elegance, , Ottawa, Ill.
Merlin’s Greenhouse & Flowers, Oregon, Ill.
By the Dozen Bakery, Rockford


2570 NW Branch Road
Polo, IL
(815) 946-2500

Cruisin’ into Love

Beloit Club, Beloit
(Beloit Club photos)

Dustin Gronau’s proposal to Meghan Donnelly didn’t go as planned.

In fact, Meghan actually found the ring.

“We went on a cruise in November 2014, and at the airport on the way down to Florida, Meghan went to put something away in my bag,” Dustin says. “She went into a pocket and found something that felt like a ring box.”

Meghan was suspicious, but decided not to open the box. The decision led to a wonderful surprise on the second night of their cruise.

After enjoying a formal dinner, Meghan and Dustin went back to their room to relax on the balcony, drink champagne and enjoy their vacation time. That’s when Dustin proposed a toast.

“He told me that I needed more champagne and when I turned around, there he was, down on one knee,” Meghan says. “I’m so glad I let the proposal be a surprise.”

The Beloit natives had been dating since high school. Dustin initially was attracted to Meghan’s intelligence, stunning looks and dynamite personality. He knew after senior prom that he wanted to get married.

Meghan took a bit longer to arrive at the same realization.

“I didn’t know until right after college graduation,” Meghan says. “But I was always attracted to his handsome looks and great sense of humor.”

Choosing a wedding venue was a piece of cake for the couple. Meghan’s father has been a member of Beloit Club for about 20 years, so the bride knew right away that she wanted to have her reception there. She booked her May 7, 2016, reception a year in advance.

The hilltop clubhouse looks out onto an 18-hole golf course where Meghan and Dustin took photos after their wedding. Spanning the top floor of the clubhouse, their reception treated guests to the luxuries of a full bar and expansive balcony facing the back of the property.

“Beloit Club is one of the nicest places in town,” Meghan says. “It meant a lot to my dad to have the reception there. I really appreciate how the staff took care of everything that we needed – they even stayed late after a Friday-night event to take care of our decorations. They did an excellent job.”

The couple have received many compliments from their 250 guests about the venue and the food. The grilled cheese sandwiches served at 10:30 p.m. were especially a hit after a few hours of dancing.

The Gronaus left for their honeymoon the day after their wedding: a TransAtlantic cruise to London, Paris, Venice and Rome.

“We chose to do a cruise since we got engaged on a cruise,” Meghan says. “I’ll never forget how perfect everything went. My wedding was a magical day; not one thing went wrong. The best part, though, was I got to marry my best friend.”

Learn more at ccbeloit.com.


First Congregational Church, Beloit, Wis.
Beloit Club, Beloit, Wis.
Paul Siksna with G.K. Jams
Beloit Floral, Beloit, Wis.
TLC Photography, South Beloit, Ill.
Veils and Tails, Clinton, Wis.

Beloit Club

2327 S Riverside Dr.
Beloit, WI
(608) 364-9000

The Perfect Catch

Burpee Museum of Natural History, Rockford
(Beloit Club photos)

They may have met while on the cast of ‘Annie’ at Jefferson High School in Rockford, but Lisa Holliday and Andrew Robinson’s love for each other is not an act.

Even after losing connection for nine years, their relationship blossomed into a wonderful marriage.

“Her smile and outgoing personality is what drew me to her initially,” Andrew says. “Lisa says it was my sense of humor and playfulness that she loved.”

Once Andrew graduated from high school, he moved to Michigan and the two lost touch.

That’s when a simple photo on Facebook lit some old flames.

“We reconnected after her younger sister posted a picture of the two of them,” Andrew says. “The connection was undeniable from our first phone conversation as adults, even after a nine-year absence. She then invited me back to Rockford to a wedding for one of her childhood friends and we fell in love over the next five days.”

Andrew says the proposal was spontaneous. It happened while he was visiting Lisa in Rockford over Labor Day Weekend in 2009.

“While sitting on the couch in her parents’ basement saying goodbye to her, I told her I loved her and I wanted to marry her,” Andrew says. “I got off the couch, got on my knee and told her ‘Let’s make it official. We know what we need and that’s each other’. I didn’t have a ring yet, but that didn’t matter to her.”

When it came time to pick a wedding venue, the couple wanted a place to entertain a wide range of ages and a place that would display Rockford in a positive light for their out-of-town guests.

They found all of that at the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford.

The museum provides several scenic locations for weddings, from the Riverview Room and Terrace that overlooks the Rock River, to the 400-seat outdoor amphitheater near a riverwalk.

The couple had their August 8, 2015, ceremony in the amphitheater and the reception in the Riverview Room in front of 165 guests. They booked their wedding venue about a year in advance.

“We chose Burpee Museum for our ceremony and reception because of all the amenities Burpee had to offer,” Andrew says. “We really liked our backdrop of the Rock River for our ceremony. And because we had a baseball themed wedding, the fact that the amphitheater resembled the shape of a baseball field tied everything together.”

Their love for baseball was on display during the wedding. The couple used a catcher’s mitt for a ring bearer’s pillow. Andrew’s cufflinks were made from a seat from the old Comiskey Park. In addition, the couple’s sand ceremony was more like a dirt ceremony. They combined real dirt from Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular Field, since Lisa is a Chicago Cubs fan and Andrew is a Chicago White Sox fan. Real ivy was placed on the tables as part of the centerpieces.

Nicolette Pumilia, Burpee’s marketing coordinator, helped to facilitate everything.

“From trimming shrubs on the walkway to helping us load our things in our vehicles at the end of the night, our day wouldn’t have been as smooth without Nicolette’s help,” Andrew says.

Learn more at burpee.org.


Burpee Museum of Natural History, Rockford
Chubby Guys BBQ, Rockford
Flipside DJ Entertainment, Rockford
David’s Bridal, Rockford
White Shutter Photography, Rockford

Burpee Museum of Natural History

737 N. Main St.
Rockford, IL
(815) 965-3433

Picture Perfect

Byron Forest Preserve
(Erik Lunsford Photography photo)

Max Gersh developed a passion for photography as a child in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. More than 300 miles away in Rockford, Erin Gersh grew up with the same passion.

Max’s photojournalism career brought him to Rockford, where he met Erin at a going-away party for a colleague in September 2011. The pair quickly realized how much they had in common and dated for three years before Max arranged a picture-perfect proposal.

“Erin’s an artist, and I’m always trying to get her to draw more,” says Max. So on New Year’s Day, 2015, during an impromptu doodling session, Max suggested they each draw their plans for the next year in 10 minutes.

“I’m a terrible artist,” he laughs, “but at the end I drew a stick figure down on one knee holding up a big ring. Then I got out the ring and proposed. It was totally a surprise.”

Erin and Max chose Byron Forest Preserve for their ceremony and reception. They wed on Aug. 29, 2015, surrounded by 75 guests and the forest preserve’s lush outdoor scenery.

“We knew we wanted a smaller wedding in a natural setting. We wanted something peaceful and scenic,” Max says. “It’s definitely great for people who love the outdoors.”

The reception was held inside the Jarrett Prairie Center, overlooking 450 acres of restored prairie. The venue hosts 15 to 20 weddings each year and can hold up to 200 people.

“The land made for fantastic pictures,” Max says. “We were so happy with how everything turned out. There’s nothing we’d do differently.”

Learn more at byronforestpreserve.com.


Byron Forest Preserve, Byron
Erik Lunsford Photography

Byron Forest Preserve

7993 N. River Road
Byron, IL
(815) 234-8535

Sparks Fly

Creek Bend Nature Center, St. Charles

For Jacki and Ryan Cope, July 4 has always been special.

“One summer, when we were younger, we went to the Chicago fireworks together,” Jacki says. “That was the first time he told me he loved me.”

Last year, sparks flew again when the couple revisited Chicago on July 4 and watched the fireworks from Buckingham Fountain with some family and close friends. Under the glowing lights, Ryan proposed.

Jacki and Ryan wanted a venue as romantic as their engagement, and they found it when they came across Creek Bend Nature Center in St. Charles. Nestled in the LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve, the property includes a spacious outdoor setting and a 1930s renovated house, which hosts a variety of events year-round. The couple booked their July wedding nine months out.

Jacki was surprised to find the scenic outdoor venue so close to her hometown of Wheaton. “I knew I wanted a backyard reception, but a little more elegant,” says Jacki. “I actually searched a lot of places, and I can’t believe I didn’t think of Creek Bend sooner.”

Ryan grew up in Crestline, Ohio, and met Jacki when he moved to Chicago in 2003 to attend Universal Technical Institute. After graduation, Ryan moved to Florida to work for Mercedes Benz of Sarasota. Jacki graduated from Illinois State University and moved to Florida to be with Ryan. She moved back to Wheaton in 2011; Ryan followed about two years later.

During their time apart, the couple remained optimistic. “We’re kind of the same person,” Jacki says. “We always knew we were going to be together, but we were always in different places.”

The time and location were just right when the two were wed this past Fourth of July weekend. On July 2, Jacki and Ryan said “I do” under a spacious clear-top tent next to the Nature Center, surrounded by 140 guests and the forest scenery.

"The guests all really enjoyed it,” Jacki says. “Most told me they felt like they were in the middle of nowhere, but close to home at the same time.”

The couple customized the venue to fit their elegant, vintage style. The two were in total control of their wedding day, from catering to tent services. Taking advantage of their freedom, Jacki and Ryan brought in food trucks to cater the reception and add to its fun, relaxed atmosphere.

The large circle driveway accommodated food trucks from Porkchop in Chicago, La Cocinita in Evanston and Grill Chasers in Schaumberg. Violet and Pearl Vintage Rentals decorated the elegant house and complemented its furnishings with stylish seating for guests who wanted an escape from the outdoors. “I highly recommend using a rental company to stage the whole interior for you,” Jacki says.

The combination of good food, outdoor scenery and backyard atmosphere created an unforgettable experience. Of course, the timing couldn’t have been any more perfect.

“The theme of the wedding was ‘love story’,” Jacki says with a smile. She realizes Creek Bend played an important role in that story. “Not many venues were able to book a wedding on a holiday weekend. The place itself was beautiful. I loved every second.”

Learn more at kaneforest.com


Creek Bend Nature Center, St. Charles
Porkchop, Chicago; La Cocinita, Evanston; Grill Chasers, Schaumburg
Junkyard Groove, Naperville
Sweet Dreams Desserts, Sycamore
Wolsfelt’s Bridal, Aurora

Creek Bend Nature Center

37W700 Dean St.
St Charles, IL
(630) 444-3064

Wet & Wild Romance

The Edgewater, Madison, Wis.
(Chelsea Matson Photography)

When Mary McGuire saw Mike in a Speedo, it was all over. She knew she would marry him someday.

At least, that’s how Mike thinks it happened.

“It’s really because I found him funny,” Mary says. “We were both on the water polo team at University of Wisconsin-Madison, so we knew of each other for a few years prior to dating. He always made me laugh, and we had a lot of fun together.”

During 13 years of dating, the couple developed a tradition of having a nice dinner every year for each other’s birthdays. After Mary’s birthday dinner in 2015, she received an unexpected surprise.

“We went home from dinner, and I had changed into sweatpants and a Packers hoodie,” Mary says. “I was opening birthday cards when Mike came out with a card. There was some order of me reading his card, him saying nice things, getting down on one knee and pulling out a gorgeous ring. I’m still not sure what he said or how it all went – I just know that I started crying.”

The personal, private proposal was everything Mary wanted.

After looking at a dozen venues in the Madison area, the couple fell in love with The Edgewater for its floor-to-ceiling windows and its ideal location on Lake Mendota. The recently renovated and expanded Edgewater hotel boasts more than 200 guest rooms, a community plaza and pier, in-house restaurants and close proximity to the University and the state capitol.

With a guest list that included elderly relatives, new mothers and a few young nieces and nephews, the couple found it convenient to have the ceremony, cocktail hour and reception all in one location, with overnight accommodations in the same complex.

“Our guests loved the Edgewater,” Mary says. “Many of them have told us that they want to plan trips to go back.”

Mike and Mary were initially concerned that getting married at a hotel would be less personal, but found The Edgewater’s views and outdoor patio overlooking the lake were unique from other venues they toured. In addition, it was convenient to have a full spa with a variety of services available, including hair, makeup, nails, facials, massages and more. Mary, Mike and their entire wedding party were able to get ready for their big day right on site.

Working with The Edgewater’s wedding concierge, Michael Stapleton, also helped to make the planning process less stressful. He provided vendor suggestions, helped to execute the rehearsal and ceremony, worked with the couple on room blocks and menu choices, and offered assistance whenever possible.

“Michael was fantastic,” Mary says. “We’d explain what we’d want, and he’d offer suggestions and advice on what he thought would work best. We met with him a few times and had a lot of fun each and every time. I genuinely miss him.”

While most couples book The Edgewater 12 to 18 months in advance, Mary and Mike were able to book their June 4, 2016, wedding just sixth months prior. They held their reception in the Edgewater’s largest event space, which can comfortably accommodate up to 350 guests with a dance floor and bar.

“Ask a lot of questions when you’re planning your wedding,” Mary advises. “Because the space is so versatile and there’s so much you can do, it’s helpful to know your options.”

Learn more at theedgewater.com


The Edgewater, Madison, Wis., Madison, Wis.
Chocolaterian, Madison, Wis.
DJ Magic: Andrew Accola, Madison, Wis.
KP Designs: Kirstie Pence, Madison, Wis.
Chelsea Matson Photography, Milwaukee

The Edgewater

1001 Wisconsin Place
Madison, WI
(608) 535-8200

Engaged on Ice

Fishermen’s Inn, Elburn
(Timothy Whaley & Associates photo)

Their love for Chicago sports teams brought together Orland Park native Kim Janozik and Lake Zurich native Matt Brumley.

In March 2013, a mutual friend introduced the two at a bar just outside Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.

Their first official date was watching the Chicago Blackhawks as they defeated the Boston Bruins to win the Stanley Cup in 2013.

“As a couple of hardcore fans, we like to say it was fate,” Matt recalls. “Our personalities, sense of humor and, of course, good looks are what initially attracted us to one another.”

As time went on, it was clear to family and friends that they were meant to be together forever.

“Pretty early on in the relationship, we could both sense that was the route we were heading in,” Kim says. Matt knew he wanted to propose to Kim, but he had two obstacles: he didn’t know how he’d do it, and he wanted it to be a surprise.

When the couple went ice skating in Chicago in February 2015, Matt saw his chance. He had the wedding ring in his possession for just two hours before making his move.

“After we ice skated, I had my cousin meet us to say hello,” Matt says. “In actuality, he was really there to take pictures and a video of me proposing.”

After the couple smiled and looked at the camera, Matt turned and dropped to one knee.

“It couldn’t have gone smoother than it did,” Matt says. “She was in shock.”

The hunt was on for a place where the couple could celebrate their wedding. When the couple stepped inside Fishermen’s Inn, in Elburn, they knew they had found the right place.

Couples who book the barn-style Fishermen’s Inn are given exclusive use of the facility and grounds, including its several social event rooms. The Loft and Great Room feature 30-foot barn wood beams, stone columns and reclaimed barn wood.

“We were going for more of a rustic feel for our wedding,” Kim says. “We felt comfortable as soon as we stepped through the doors of Fishermen’s Inn. We loved having the entire venue to ourselves, knowing our guests could experience and enjoy every inch of the grounds and venue.”

Fishermen’s Inn features breathtaking views of the 20-acre landscape, seven spring-fed ponds and beautiful gardens. The uniquely rustic, elegant venue offers outdoor wedding sites and an indoor space that holds up to 300 people.

Patti Southern, co-owner of Fishermen’s Inn, says many couples now book their weddings at least a year in advance, so the callendar fills up quickly. The venue hosts about 85 weddings each year, year-round.

“We still have availability for 2017, but we are also scheduling weddings into 2018,” Southern says. Kim and Matt booked the venue about 15 months before their June 10, 2016, wedding.

“We immediately fell in love with the venue, and we didn’t want to risk it becoming unavailable,” Kim says.

“We have been told by many people that this was the best wedding they have ever attended, which is both flattering to us and also a great representation of the venue itself,” Kim adds. “We have heard many different compliments regarding the diligent customer service, the delicious food options and how beautiful both the craftsmanship of the building and the surrounding grounds are.”

Learn more at fishermensinnelburn.com.


Fishermen's Inn,
Elburn, Ill.
Moeller Music, Chicago Area
Kio Kreations, Naperville
David and Stephanie Weddings, Lee, Ill.
Martellen’s Bridal, Lemont

Fishermen's Inn

43W901 Main Street Road
Elburn, IL
(630) 365-9697

Come Rain or Shine

Franchesco’s Ristorante, Rockford
(Jodi Flynn Photography photos)

On a rainy afternoon in downtown Chicago, Kara McKinney and Aaron Villacorta were walking their dog along the shores of Lake Michigan. They’d been dating for three years, having met through a mutual friend.

Aaron stopped walking and looked very seriously at Kara. “You’ll be OK with it if we don’t get engaged for another three or four years, right?”

Kara hid her disappointment. “Sure I will,” she answered. “We both have a lot going on in our work lives right now.”

Then Aaron smiled. “Well, I wouldn’t be OK with it, so let’s get engaged right now, today,” he said. Kara laughs when she recalls that magical rainy afternoon. Today, the happily married couple lives in Buffalo Grove, where Aaron works as a logistics broker, Kara as an early childhood specialist. They’re not far from the things that matter most to them – her family in Rockford, his family in Mundelein and downtown Chicago, where they met.

Aaron and Kara complement each others’ strengths and “just get each other,” says Kara. “He’s more of a perfectionist, I’m more laid back. What drew us together is that we laugh at the same things, share the same sense of humor. That’s important. And, for both of us, family is very important.”

In fact, it was at a birthday party for Kara’s mother that the couple first thought about booking their wedding at Franchesco’s Ristorante, in Rockford.

“They did such a great job with that family birthday party,” Kara recalls. “We had the best time. We loved the atmosphere, the food was terrific, and the staff couldn’t have been friendlier or more attentive.”

The same held true at their May wedding and reception at Franchesco’s. “We couldn’t have been any happier with the way it went,” says Kara. “They treated us as if we were part of their family.”

The couple’s pastor officiated the ceremony in a decorated banquet room arranged with an aisle for the bridal party to walk down. Lavender, grey and white were the starring colors. “My late Grandpa had always given lilacs to my Mom, so I wanted the lilacs to be part of the decor, in his honor,” she says. After the ceremony, the 275 guests enjoyed a cocktail hour.

“Then, the staff opened up another banquet room for a sit-down dinner reception with the kind of classic Italian dishes our families just love – there was Mediterranean chicken, lots of good pasta, and a beautiful wedding cake made by Kim Salamone, one of the restaurant’s owners.”

One of Kara’s favorite touches was a digital montage of family photos that Aaron put together himself, easily accommodated by Franchesco’s AV department. “It’s something we can keep forever,” she says.

One of the keys to a great event is employing a high ratio of servers per guest, says Franchesco’s owner Benny Salamone, who hosts 50 to 60 weddings each year.

“To serve hot, fresh food, from kitchen to table, you need an adequate number of servers,” says Salamone. “We have at least one server per three tables, compared to most facilities, which have one server per 50 to 60 guests.”

Franchesco’s also supplies linens and centerpieces, if requested by the bride, making her job a bit easier.

“The best advice I would give a bride-to-be is to work with reliable people, stay calm and just enjoy your day,” says Kara. “It’s kind of like marriage itself. You have to overlook little imperfections and believe everything will work out just fine – come rain or shine.”

Learn more at franchescos.com


Franchesco’s Ristorante, Rockford
Crimson Ridge, Rockford
Paul Singh
Annie Steele Photography, Chicago

Franchesco's Ristorante

7128 Spring Creek Rd.
Rockford, IL
(815) 229-0800

Miami Connection

Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center, Rockford
(Yunkin Keophomma photos)

Miami has always been a special place for Daniel and Claudia Stevens.

Daniel attended his first year of college at Florida International University in Miami.

Claudia, who is from Krakow, Poland, says that one of the ways she learned English, when she was a child, was by watching “The Little Mermaid.” Because of that Disney film, the beach and Florida have always held special meaning for her.

“Miami has significance in both of our lives,” says Daniel, who is from Chicago.

So, when it came time for Daniel to propose to Claudia, he knew exactly where to go.

He proposed to his longtime girlfriend inside a pretty hotel room in Miami that was strewn with rose petals leading to the balcony.

“Of course, the hotel didn’t do it as planned, as they ‘forgot’ to set the room up initially,” Daniel says. “I had to stall as they re-prepared the room. After that, the proposal was filled with tears of joy.”

When it came time for the lovebirds to find a wedding venue, Daniel knew just the place. The couple married at Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center in Rockford, which is owned by Daniel’s friend, Al Castrogiovanni, and his family.

“He is a dear friend and it only made sense to have our special day at his venue,” says Daniel.

Claudia and Daniel originally met more than 10 years ago. As a professional model, Claudia was working at a car show that Daniel attended. Daniel connected with her on MySpace and they stayed in touch over the years.

Without ever formally meeting, Daniel asked Claudia if she would be part of a photo shoot for his business, Premier Fitness, in Rockford.

“The rest is history,” Daniel says. “After our photo shoot together, it was love at first sight.”

Daniel and Claudia wanted to incorporate Miami into the wedding plans. Instead of traveling to south Florida, the couple decided to have a Miami nightclub-themed wedding with a dessert and champagne bar.

“No dinner was served,” Daniel says. “We wanted more of a party than a conventional, boring, wedding.”

With stunning ballrooms and a dedicated banquet staff, Giovanni’s could more than accommodate the couple’s 110 guests while offering close proximity to area hotels and modern décor.

The couple booked their wedding three months before their wedding day of July 11, 2015, but Jaymie Nelson, administrator at Giovanni’s, recommends booking eight to 12 months in advance.

“Our venue is newly remodeled, with new carpet, paint, wallpaper, chairs and a new dance floor,” Nelson says. “Our décor is a neutral color pallet to allow guests the freedom to choose any color scheme.”

The venue hosts roughly 75 weddings each year. Giovanni’s can host up to three smaller wedding parties at a time, or accommodate one large wedding of up to 850 people.

Daniel says guests definitely had a great time the wedding. The very creative staff at Giovanni’s knows how to throw a party and take the pressure off the couples’ shoulders.

“Al and his staff made sure every detail was accounted for,” Daniel says. “Let them showcase their creativity. You won’t be disappointed.”

Learn more at giodine.com


Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center, Rockford
By the Dozen, Machesney Park, Ill.
Brian Boncher, Chicago
White Eagle Flowers, Chicago
Yunkin Keophomma, Rockford
Sarah Grace Co., Rockford

Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center

610 N Bell School Road
Rockford, IL
(815) 398-6411

A Fairy Tale Wedding

Goldmoor Inn, Galena
(Fallon’s Portraits | Design)

Wade Russell was nervous for his first date with Megan Bartchlett. It had been a couple of years since they’d seen each other.

“We went to high school together in Findlay, Ohio, but we were just friends,” Wade says. “I was worried we wouldn’t have anything in common.”

Megan remembers being a high school freshman the same year Wade was a senior. At the time, she figured Wade was out of her league.

“I had a crush on him since middle school,” Megan says. “He was just so cute. I was so excited whenever he got on the bus.”

After years of doting, Megan decided to be brave. She texted Wade when she was a freshman in college, with no expectations of his replying.

When Wade did, she was elated.

Wade didn’t wait long before asking Megan on a date. His fears of not having anything in common immediately washed away.

“Once we were on that first date, her personality was perfect,” Wade says. “We just clicked instantly.”

They ended their date with a walk around their college campus at Bowling Green State University, in Bowling Green, Ohio. Years later, Wade proposed after walking the same grounds.

Megan cherishes the memory of Wade getting down on one knee by the campus clock tower.

“There were beautiful flowers everywhere, and it was the first sunny day all week,” Megan says. “I don’t even remember what he said. I was just so happy.”

The couple envisioned having a small, simple destination wedding with close family. While scrolling through Pinterest, Megan discovered her storybook dream in Galena’s Goldmoor Inn. Set in the countryside overlooking the Mississippi River and rolling hills of Galena, Goldmoor Inn’s “castle” feel invoked a feeling of romance, privacy and a special retreat for Megan and Wade.

When Megan realized Goldmoor Inn could accommodate weddings from two to 150 people, she knew it was the perfect venue. Eight months in advance, she and Wade booked Goldmoor Inn for their wedding on June 25, 2016. The bed-and-breakfast hosts about 60 weddings each year. Goldmoor’s simple, yet elegant setting proved to be a perfect size for the couple’s small party of close family and friends.

“We invited our parents, grandparents and siblings,” says Megan. “My sisters-in-law, ages 9 and 13, were my bridesmaids. My brother and Wade’s brother, ages 18 and 11, were the groomsmen. Everything was so intimate, and we didn’t go into debt. I got my perfect wedding without all the money.”

The wedding coordinator at Goldmoor Inn, Angele DeVere, “magically” arranged everything for the Bowling Green residents, from the flowers, catering and photography to the cake and decor. Not having to stress over the small details allowed the couple to enjoy their wedding even more.

“All I had to do was tell them my vision and show up,” Megan says. “Wade and I got there two days in advance and just enjoyed each other, rather than stressing over details.

“This was truly my fairy tale wedding,” Megan adds. “I had my prince charming, my perfect ceremony, a mouthwatering dinner – everything was perfect.”

Learn more at goldmoor.com


Goldmoor Inn, Galena
Fallon’s Portraits | Design, Galena

Goldmoor Inn

9001 N. Sand Hill Road
Galena, IL
(815) 777-3925

A Whole New World

Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, St. Charles
(Ashley Biess - Artistrie Co. photos)

Meagan Wheeler was expecting a proposal from Mike Wizceb, her boyfriend of six years.

Whenever she walked into her St. Charles home, she hoped to see flowers, candles – something that resembled a proposal. But she didn’t.

“So, I didn’t think he would ever really surprise me,” Meagan says.

She got the surprise of her life on Dec. 21, 2012 – the supposed end of the world, according to the Mayan calendar.

That night, Mike and Meagan, former classmates at St. Charles North High School, attended an “End of the World Party.” One of Meagan’s friends suggested the couple take pictures, since Meagan is an avid scrapbooker.

“When Mike and I were up taking photos, he whispered something along the lines of ‘If today really were the end of the world, I’d want to spend it with you,’” Meagan recalls. “Then, he got on one knee and proposed.”

It was a whole new beginning, on a day the world was supposed to end. The man who originally swept Meagan off her feet while they were classmates at Illinois State University had asked her to be his wife.

“I freaked out,” Meagan says. “I was not expecting it at all, and my friends were able to get it all on camera.”

While she was looking for a place to host her wedding reception, Meagan followed some advice from her mother.

“My mom actually suggested that I check out Hickory Knolls Discovery Center because it was right down the road from her house,” Meagan says. “I did, and it was perfect from the beginning.”

Set at the edge of a public park, the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, in St. Charles, is an environmental education center that doubles as a social events venue. It has space for indoor and outdoor wedding ceremonies and accommodates receptions with 175 to 200 guests.

“We chose to only invite family members to the ceremony, which was about 100 people,” Meagan says. “Then, for the cocktails and reception, we invited friends as well. We invited about 170 people total.”

A relatively new venue on the wedding scene, Hickory Knolls is flexible with dates. Tricia Claypool, rental and event coordinator, says the venue only hosts eight to 10 weddings each year.

Meagan and Mike were married on Oct. 11, 2014, almost two years after their epic proposal.

The couple booked their wedding venue well over a year in advance, which was plenty of time, Meagan says.

Hickory Knolls is ideal for a couple who love the outdoors. Live reptiles and other small critters are on display throughout the facility, where wide banks of windows offer a supreme view of prairie surroundings and an oak savanna.

“They let us rent out the entire facility, they gave us ample time to set up the day before and it is set with the most beautiful background,” Meagan says.

Meagan suggests renting out the entire facility, especially if holding a wedding ceremony on site. “It really spreads everything out,” she says. “Make sure you thank Tricia. She did a ton of behind-the-scenes work you don’t even know about.”

Learn more at stcnature.org


Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, St. Charles
Sweet Dreams Desserts, Sycamore
A Class Act DJ Service
Ashley Biess - Artistrie Co., Chicago
The Crystal Bride, Geneva

Hickory Knolls Discovery Center

3795 Campton Hills Road
St. Charles, IL
(630) 513-4399

New Beginnings

Hilton Garden Inn, Rockford
(Gregory Hitchcock Photography photo)

Ally Lenz has a beautiful smile. Steve Whittaker has a charming personality. When the two met through mutual friends, it was clear they were compatible.

“There wasn’t a specific moment when we realized we were in love,” Ally says. “But about eight months into the relationship, after we matured as a couple, we both realized marriage was in our future.”

Ally and Steve threw a New Year’s Eve party at their residence in Rockford on Dec. 31, 2015. Surrounded by their friends and families, the couple couldn’t have been happier.

That is, until Steve got down on one knee.

“He proposed at midnight when the ball dropped,” Ally says. “We were so happy that our loved ones were able to be there.”

Ally thought she wanted a destination wedding, but changed her mind after touring Hilton Garden Inn, in Rockford. The newly renovated location had a warm atmosphere that fit what Ally and Steve were looking for. Plus, its 3,600 square feet of banquet space could accommodate the couple’s 200 guests for both the ceremony and reception.

“The staff was able to transform the room during the cocktail hour,” Ally says. “We’re very impressed by everybody who helped make that happen. Our guests still rave about how beautiful it was.”

Ally and Steve booked Hilton Garden Inn just five months in advance of their July 2, 2016 wedding day. Though she recommends booking a year in advance, the Hilton’s wedding coordinator, Kelly Plath, has planned receptions with as little as two months notice.

Working with Plath helped Ally and Steve to enjoy the planning process.

“She was so easy to talk to and she answered all of our questions,” Ally says. “All you really need to know is your date – Kelly will help take care of everything else.”

Plath loved showing off Hilton Garden Inn to Ally and Steve.

“It was great to help them envision their wedding,” Plath says. “One of the best things about hosting your wedding here is being able to use the hotel for overnight accommodations, which the Whittakers did. Not only do we include a complimentary whirlpool suite for the bride and groom, but all wedding guests are eligible for a discount at the hotel for the night of the wedding. That way, at the end of the night everyone can safely travel up the elevator to their room and not have to worry about driving anywhere.”

Plath walked the couple through the Hilton’s many dining options. Ally and

Steve had a difficult, yet fun time choosing from the variety of entrees. They also were grateful that the Hilton’s culinary staff could cut and serve their cake at no additional charge.

“Our guests still tell us how muc

h they loved the food,” Ally says. “Food is an important aspect of any event. We also made s’mores boxes as gifts for our guests. Overall, everything about the day went smoothly and we couldn’t be happier with our experience.”

Learn more at hiltongardeninn3.hilton.com.


hiltongardeninn3.hilton.com">Hilton Garden Inn, Rockford
Cake Creations, Rockford
DJ Kevin Burns with Good Vibrations, Rockford
Gregory Hitchcock Photography, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Veils and Tails, Clinton, Wis.

Hilton Garden Inn

7675 Walton St.
Rockford, IL
(815) 229-3322

A Friendship Foundation

Ironworks Hotel, Beloit, Wis.
(Maison Meredith Photography photos)

Wesley Groom was cute, nice and impressive at line dancing. He instantly caught Courtney Kjell’s eye at Shooters Bar & Grill, in Rockford.

“We were there for country night with a group of mutual friends,” Courtney says. “We instantly realized that we had a lot in common.”

Wesley and Courtney became best friends over the next two years. They volunteered together at church, motivated each other at the gym and continued to go out dancing.

On Dec. 20, 2015, the couple went with friends and family to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. Courtney wondered why Wesley appeared to be so nervous.

“We were waiting in line to get a picture in this giant lit-up display,” Courtney says. “When it was our turn, Wesley started telling me how much he loved me. I felt bad because I didn’t realize what was going on and there was a line of people behind us. As soon as I figured out he was proposing, he was already on one knee. It definitely came as a surprise, and of course I said yes. Everyone around us cheered.”

Only six weeks later, on Feb. 20, 2016, Courtney and Wesley walked down the aisle at Central Christian Church in Beloit, Wis.

Courtney knew she wanted to have her reception at Ironworks Hotel the moment she walked in the lobby. Since it was the wedding off-season, she was able to book the industrial-chic venue on the Rock River just one month in advance of her wedding day. Guests were able to stay overnight in Ironworks’ recently renovated luxury boutique rooms, featuring 18 traditional rooms and 36 suites.

“The hotel had a rustic-meets-modern-day feel to it, and I instantly fell in love with it,” Courtney says. “I especially loved the giant sliding wood door where my guests would enter. I cancelled my viewings at other venues since I had already made up my mind.”

Courtney recommends utilizing Ironworks’ event planning team. She loved their suggestions of having a separate head table for the wedding party and using giant wooden chairs for the bride and groom.

From appetizers to entrees, the food from the on-site caterer, Merrill and Houston’s Steak Joint, proved a huge success. When the ceremony and wedding pictures went faster than anticipated, Ironworks staff accommodated the couple’s request to serve dinner earlier in order to keep guests from waiting.

Courtney and Wesley are thankful their wedding went smoothly under last-minute conditions.

“The Ironworks staff went above and beyond to accommodate my short timeframe,” Courtney says. “They had so many helpful tips and ideas, and they were always available when I had questions. I was also seven months pregnant at the time, adding a lot more challenges, such as alterations on the wedding gown. Even with all of those challenges, my wedding turned out beautifully and I couldn’t be happier.”

Learn more at ironworkshotel.com


Central Christian Church, Beloit, Wis.
Ironworks Hotel, Beloit, Wis.
Merrill & Houston’s Steak Joint, Beloit, Wis.
Amy’s Cakes, Janesville, Wis.
Dennis Seeley, Roscoe
Nyrie’s Flower Shop, South Beloit
Julie and Jim Barker, Caledonia
Great Hang-Ups, Rockford

Ironworks Hotel

500 Pleasant St.
Beloit, WI
(608) 362-5500

Love at First Bite

Josef Barbados Steakhouse & Oyster Bar, Rockford
(Dreibelbis & Fairweather photo)

Ali Brearley has always loved to cook. She knew she finally found her match when she met Brandon Brumback, a professional chef from Kansas City, Mo. The couple met through mutual friends in the restaurant industry on St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago, 2013. “We instantly liked each other, and the rest is history,” says Ali.

They dated for more than a year, and in November, 2014, Brandon bought a ring. “I wanted it to be a surprise, but the night I brought the ring home, she knew something was up. I decided I couldn’t wait any longer. I proposed right in our walk-in closet in our apartment.”

On Sept. 26, 2015, the couple wed in Ali’s hometown of Rockford in her uncle’s scenic backyard, known by family and friends as Weis Gardens. Ali and Brandon chose Josef Barbados Steak House & Oyster Bar for their reception.

The restaurant’s owners, Josef and Cherri, have been friends of Ali’s family for years. “Josef always delivers such an amazing product,” says Ali.

“Josef and Cherri were so helpful in making our vision a reality. They went above and beyond our wants and needs,” adds Brandon.

This award-winning Caribbean restaurant doubles as an elegant wedding venue with an intimate indoor space and an outdoor patio perfect for cocktail hour. To accommodate Ali and Brandon’s 140 guests, the restaurant closed to the public and set up buffet-style dining stations. The family-owned restaurant is decorated with beautiful glass chandeliers and artwork. Little to no decorating was needed, so Ali and Brandon could focus on creating their own custom wedding menu.

Incorporating the pair’s German heritage, the menu included sauerkraut and savory meats. “Everyone loved it. Josef makes a mean sauerkraut,” laughs Ali. “We got so many great reviews. People said it was the best wedding food they ever had.”

Learn more at josefbarbados.com.


Josef Barbados Steakhouse & Oyster Bar, Rockford

Josef Barbados Steakhouse & Oyster Bar

6860 Spring Creek Road
Rockford, IL
(815) 282-3400

Messy Hair, Don’t Care

Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden
(Simply Photogenic Photography photo)

Throughout their friendship, Mike has always been able to make Emma laugh. She’s admired his honesty, kindness and high moral standards for the past 10 years.

“But it wasn’t until last year that I suddenly realized he’s everything I want in a husband,” Emma says. “It was only a few weeks after we were dating that I realized he was the reliable, hard-working man I knew all along.”

Emma assumed Mike would propose during a weekend trip to Chicago, so she planned to get her hair cut and nails done ahead of time for engagement photos.

Mike had a better idea.

“The weekend before the alleged ‘special day,’ we went for a hike in a beautiful forest preserve we frequented,” Emma says. “He proposed at a special spot overlooking the park. Of course, my hair was a mess and I was covered in mud, but it was so much more romantic that way.”

Emma and Mike couldn’t resist booking Klehm Arboretum for their wedding reception. Their guests still gush about the beautiful atmosphere.

“The garden setting really sold the deal for us,” Emma says. “Plus, the reception room was already nicely decorated. This made for less work and preparation, and it was at an amazingly affordable price.”

Two outdoor ceremony locations are available for rent, including a fountain garden area that can fit up to 300 guests and an intimate bridge and pond area for 50 guests. Indoor reception space can accommodate up to 225, and in 2017, a new outdoor pavilion will be able to fit 400.

Close communication with Chris Sarna, the arboretum’s rentals manager, helped everything to run smoothly on Emma and Mike’s wedding day.

“She helped us become familiar with the sound setup and floor plans well in advance,” Emma says. “Overall, the whole experience with Klehm Arboretum was everything I hoped for.”

Learn more at klehm.org.


Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden

Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden

2715 S. Main St.
Rockford, IL
(815) 965-8146

Following Family Traditions

Mauh-Nah-Tee-See Club, Rockford
(Meg Dunn Photography photos)

A weekend that started with celebrating a friend’s wedding ended with Maryjo Pirages Reynolds and Nathan Reynolds planning the rest of their lives together.

The couple, who originally met on a dating website, celebrated a friend’s wedding on Oct. 31, 2015, in Chicago. The next night, Nate surprised Maryjo with a large box.

Inside the box were wedding pictures of his parents, Maryjo’s parents and all four sets of their grandparents, who have a combined 316 years of marriage between them. The box also contained a small ring box.

Nate took out the ring, got down on one knee and told Maryjo that there was one picture that was needed to complete the wall of wedding photos that Maryjo dreamed of having in her home – their own wedding photo.

“It was such a heartfelt, thoughtful proposal and it was representative of one of the things I quickly recognized and love about Nate, his appreciation for and love of family,” says Maryjo, a Rockford native.

The couple quickly began to make wedding plans and were married April 30, 2016, six months after Nate proposed.

“We were thrilled that my grandparents’ pastor could come down from Wisconsin to marry us, as he has become a friend of our family over the years and has played an important role in developing my faith,” Maryjo says.

The couple was delighted to be the third generation in Maryjo’s family to be married at the Cathedral of Saint Peter in Rockford.They were also happy to know Mauh-Nah-Tee-See Club was available for their wedding reception.

Among the reasons why they liked Mauh-Nah-Tee-See was the beauty of the facility and the venue’s ability to accommodate the couple’s 300 guests.

The venue could additionally work within the couple’s six-month window.

“It could accommodate my very large, extended family and it was well located,” Maryjo says. “We also liked that it had lots of windows and was very open and elegant.”

Mauh-Nah-Tee-See offers a flexible reception venue, which allows guests to make the space their own, says Rachael Pennell, food and beverage manager at Mauh-Nah-Tee-See. The venue hosts between 25 and 30 weddings each year.

“We tried to see to it that our wedding had small, unique touches that represented our backgrounds and families,” Maryjo says. “For example, the cannolis for dessert were a hat tip to my Italian heritage and the quilted cake design was inspired by Nate’s grandmas – both of whom have been avid quilters.”

Maryjo and Nate also said the venue was very flexible when it came time to set up.

“They facilitated a meeting with our florist and linen vendor and allowed us to stop in to visualize the space,” Maryjo says. “They were also flexible in scheduling a tasting and reliable in follow-up conference calls with us to finalize a menu and a day of timeline.”

The couple’s guests had positive reviews of the venue.

“Everyone really enjoyed the food and the dance party,” Maryjo says. “The service was excellent. We had a wonderful day at Mauh-Nah-Tee-See.”

Learn more at mntscc.org.


The Cathedral of Saint Peter, Rockford.
Mauh-Nah-Tee-See Club, Rockford
TVK Orchestra, Chicago
Pepper Creek Florist, Rockford
Meg Dunn Photography, Rockford

Mauh-Nah-Tee-See Club

5151 Guilford Road
Rockford, IL
(815) 399-0682

Master Planners

Maxson Restaurant & Riverboat, Oregon, Ill.
(C+S Wedding & Event Photography photos)

Samm Hinrichs developed a master plan when she met Ken Dawson, through mutual friends, at a haunted house.

“She pretended to ‘lose’ her phone so I could get her number to help find it,” Ken says. “I was attracted to her eyes, amazing looks and personality. She’s very easygoing and fun to be around. We hit it off right away.”

After a year of dating, the couple acknowledged they had a serious connection and hoped eventually to get married. Ken bought a ring, but the ‘right moment’ to propose never seemed to arrive.

Five months passed as Ken waited for a special, romantic opportunity. Finally, he crafted a master plan of his own.

“The proposal was quite an ordeal,” says Ken. “I ran through idea after idea, but they never worked out. Something always came up to make me cancel. Finally, I secretly booked a private wine room at Franchesco’s Ristorante, in Rockford. I played it off like it was a mistake on the restaurant’s end. I had the ring tucked in the side of my sock, and after ordering food and drinks, I took a knee next to her and proposed. She said yes, obviously, and that she knew something was up.”

The No. 1 priority when searching for a wedding venue was finding a location with a waterfront view.

The couple was thrilled to find Maxson Riverboat and Riverside Restaurant, in Oregon, for their June 25, 2016, wedding. A longtime favorite for casual dining, banquets and dinner cruises on the Rock River, Maxson had the beautiful views the couple hoped for. And, it was close to Polo, where Ken grew up and where the couple now live.

“We booked about nine or 10 months in advance, just because we knew it was the place and we wanted to have it,” Ken says.

The venue can accommodate 110 people on its paddleboat, 250 on the sprawling pavilion and gazebo, and 280 in the restaurant.

Ken especially enjoyed that the whole wedding party could arrive at the reception by boat. “Samm and I love being on the water, and arriving by boat made our wedding more unique,” Ken sa ys. “Don’t be afraid to ask the owners any questions you have – they are willing to work with you to make everything just as you want.”

The couple also got the pizza and pasta bar they wanted, even though pizza isn’t offered on the menu. Everything was made in house. The Maxson’s staff also ordered specific alcohol that the couple requested, provided containers for leftover cupcakes and kept leftover wedding cake overnight in the fridge.

“They went above and beyond what we could have asked for,” Ken says. “All of the guests said the venue was beautiful and that the food was amazing. We couldn’t have been happier with the service and how the whole process went.”

Learn more at maxsons.net


Maxson Restaurant & Riverboat, Oregon
Mark Charvat from Q98.5, Rockford
C+S Wedding & Event Photography, Byron
Merlin’s Greenhouse & Flowers, Oregon
Isabella’s Bridal, Taunton, Mass.

Maxson Restaurant & Riverboat

1469 IL Route 2
Oregon, IL
(800) 468-4222

Unique Qualities

Oak Lane, Oregon, Ill.
(Angie Adams Photography photo)

Brad Dewey and Kim Kirkolis were on their way to Galena when Brad had a spontaneous idea.

“He changed his mind on the way and we stopped at Mississippi Palisades Park in Savanna, Ill.,” Kim says. “I was scoping eagles along the river when all of a sudden, Brad popped the question. It was Oct. 24, 2015.”

The couple had met years earlier when a mutual friend invited Kim to fill in at a sand volleyball game. Brad was on the team, and Kim immediately found herself attracted to his smile and sense of humor.

The couple always new they would get married someday.

“We both said early on in our relationship that neither of us were going anywhere,” Kim says.

Within a month of the proposal, Kim and Brad found their perfect wedding venue when they toured Oak Lane in Oregon, Ill. As an 1800s dairy barn remodeled into a wedding venue, Oak Lane had the unique atmosphere the couple was looking for.

Set on 16 acres, Oak Lane offers five locations for ceremonies to be held outside. The barn’s hayloft is an ideal location for receptions. A resident lamb, pigs and llamas add character to the experience. Tables, chairs and linens are provided, as are bartenders.

“Oak Lane has an authentic rustic charm that spoke to us from the moment we stepped inside,” Kim says. “Our wedding coordinator, Jodi Horner, had great advice throughout the whole process. She provided a list of suggested vendors, she helped calm me with the decorating, and she did a wonderful job answering all of our questions.”

Even though it rained on their April 30, 2016 wedding day, Kim and Brad had a great time.

“Our wedding had so many unique qualities,” Kim says. “If you’re looking for a barn-theme wedding, this is the place for you.”

Learn more at oaklaneoforegon.com


Oak Lane of Oregon, Oregon, Ill.
Angie Adams Photography

Oak Lane of Oregon

3261 S. Daysville Road
Oregon, IL
(815) 871-0948

A Big Celebration

Oscar Swan Country Inn, Geneva & Galena
(CAM Photoz photo)

Jenn and Steve Fernandes grew up only a mile apart in West Chicago. The high school sweethearts developed an attraction over time.

“I knew Steve since middle school, but we never had much interaction,” Jenn says. “Once I got to know him better in high school, I saw his awesome character and genuine kindness. There are very few people like Stephen in this world.”

Steve orchestrated an elaborate proposal for Jenn during a concert at the Coast Guard Festival in Grand Haven, Mich. Jenn was “randomly” called to the stage where Steve, in front of nearly 1,000 people, dropped to one knee. After Jenn said yes, her entire family ran from the crowd to celebrate.

“Everything went according to plan,” Steve says. “She was completely surprised.”

Jenn quickly got to work in searching for a wedding venue. After touring Oscar Swan Country Inn in Geneva, she knew immediately it was what she wanted. The 8-acre estate with a cozy bed-and-breakfast reminded her of her grandmother’s home. The backyard and garden space accommodated all 150 of the couple’s guests for the June 4, 2016, wedding.

“We had a huge dance party, and all the children were able to run around in the yard,” Steve says. “Our guests loved the space. They also enjoyed the food – Oscar Swan catered in a buffet-style fashion and many of our guests said it was the best wedding food they ever had.”

Jenn appreciated how flexible the venue was in allowing her to bring in outside vendors. Not having to stick to a pre-planned package was important to her.

“We wanted our wedding to be relaxing and fun, and that’s exactly what it was,” Jenn says.

Learn more at oscarswan.com


Oscar Swan Country Inn, Geneva/Galena

Oscar Swan Country Inn

1800 W. State St.
Geneva, IL
(630) 232-0173

Me and My Udder Half

Prairie Street Brewing Co., Rockford
(ellAdele photography photos)

After only a month of dating, Kyle Groenhagen and Faith Glendenning knew they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together.

“Kyle claims that, after our second date, he knew I was the girl he was going to marry,” Glendenning says. “I knew after I took him to meet my entire family at a bowling fundraiser for my grandpa that we were likely going to get married.”

The couple both came from large families that knew each other. Kyle, an Oregon native, and Faith, of Stillman Valley, were acquainted, but they didn’t officially meet until October 2014.

“Kyle was feeling cocky because he had sold his calf crop at a sale barn in Iowa for a really good price, so on his way home, he worked up the courage to come into my work office and introduce himself to me,” Faith says. “What attracted me to Kyle was that we shared the same interests and dreams for our future.”

Kyle was not secretive about his interest in marrying Faith. One night, the couple went looking for wedding rings. She fell in love with one particular ring, so he purchased it on the spot.

On Jan. 13, 2015, Kyle went to Faith’s parents’ home to ask her father, George, for his blessing.

“I was expecting our engagement to come in February when Kyle and I were going to San Antonio, Texas, for the National Cattleman’s conference,” Faith says. “He couldn’t wait to be engaged to me, so right before he left to go back home for the evening, he plopped down on one knee in my parents front entryway and asked me to marry him. Of course I said yes.”

When it came time to pick a wedding venue, the couple knew they wanted a place that had character and style. They found everything they wanted at Prairie Street Brewing Co., in Rockford, a riverside restaurant and brewery with three rooms available for wedding receptions. They married on July 9, 2016, as 215 people watched.

The Malt Room boasts large timber posts and beams and can comfortably fit up to 150 people. The lower-level Ice Cellar is reminiscent of the nearly 160-year-old building’s earlier life, with a copper bar that resembles the blocks of ice once stored for brewing. The Barrel Room accommodates up to 300 people and includes natural light, custom ironwork and more than 80 dimmable paper lanterns that hang from the ceiling.

“I used all the rooms for our wedding,” Faith says. “But, the primary room we used was the Barrel Room for guest seating and dancing.”

Prairie Street can adapt to any style or theme. Kyle and Faith love cattle and are very passionate about their cow and calf herds. Faith also lived in Arizona for two years, so she’s a fan of Southwestern Style.

“One of my decorations was a saddle I still use on my horse when I get time to ride her,” Faith says. “The box centerpieces have the Groenhagens old family brand, which is a plain G, burned into the wood, and I had a lot of copper and barbed wire. Our table numbers were cattle ear tags.”

The venue hosts 80 weddings a year, says Nicole Blough, assistant events manager.

Blough recommends booking a wedding space a year to a year-and-a-half in advance.

Faith credits the Prairie Street staff for making the day run so smoothly.

“I seriously can’t say enough good things about the team at Prairie Street Brewhouse,” she says. “I wasn’t stressed at all on my wedding day. It was seriously better than I could have even dreamed of.”

Learn more at psbrewhouse.com


Emmanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, Paynes Point, Ill.
Prairie Street Brewing Co., Rockford
Event Floral, Loves Park, Ill.
Luxe Productions, Loves Park, Ill.
ellAdele photography, Monroe Center, Ill.

Prairie Street Brewing Co.

200 Prairie St.
Rockford, IL
(815) 277-9427

Sunshine-Filled Love

Rocky Waters Vineyard and Winery, Hanover
(Jodi Flynn Photography photos)

From their first visit to Rocky Waters Vineyard and Winery in 2013, Andrew Richmond and Erinn Strauch fell in love with it.

“We went to the winery and had a nice time with Kyle Spahn, the son of the owners,” says Andy. “Once we saw the place, we thought it was beautiful and knew we wanted to have our wedding there.”

Through their next several visits, the couple learned more about the winemaking process, sampled more of Rocky Waters’ bottles and started to brainstorm ideas for their big day. It became an exciting process for the couple, who hadn’t previously known much about wine.

In fact, Andy and Erinn, from Morrison, Ill., and Chadwick, Ill., were first drawn to each because of their mutual interests in hunting and enjoying time outdoors, when they met in 2008 through friends. The picturesque vineyard, rolling hills and lush site next to the property’s lake was the perfect setting for two nature lovers to be wed. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Rocky Waters also made what became one of Andy’s favorite wines, the award-winning Cedar Lake Blush.

“After having a little too much wine, I told Erinn that I figured out what makes it so good – that it’s sunshine in a bottle,” says Andy. “She makes jokes about that still.”

They worked closely with Spahn over the next six months to plan out the rest of their ceremony set for Aug.16, 2014. By renting the venue’s fisherman’s cabin alongside the lake, they were able to schedule an entire weekend to relax and enjoy with their nearly 100 guests. Andy says photos of the cabin don’t do it justice.

“Kyle was awesome to work with,” says Erinn. “One of my favorite parts was using the fisherman’s cabin. We had the rehearsal dinner there, which was really accommodating for everyone. And after the wedding, the preacher announced that everyone was welcome inside for wine samplings and hors d’ oeuvres. That was super nice to have everyone at the wedding stick around for a few minutes and enjoy it.”

The relaxed atmosphere seemed to carry over from their engagement, when the couple spent a leisurely, private day at home, after Andy proposed in 2012.

“I had worked the night shift and had gone home to take a nap. When I woke up, he was there and proposed! I don’t even think I was awake enough,” laughs Erinn. “I remember asking him ‘What?’ several times.”

Spahn also set up a tractor-pulled wagon to transport guests conveniently from the parking lot to the wedding site and back, touring through the vineyard’s charming views. The reception was later held at Gil’s Ballroom, in Clinton, Iowa, with close to 200 additional family members and friends.

“Everything went perfectly,” says Andy. “Our guests loved it, too. A whole bunch of them didn’t even know that there was something like that in the area where they could go.”

Nearly a year after their ceremony, Andy and Erinn still visit the winery to enjoy a glass of wine and take it all in.

Learn more at rockywaters.net.


Rocky Waters Vineyard and Winery, Hanover, Ill.
Gil’s Ballroom, Clinton, Iowa
Nifty Cakes, Mount Carroll, Ill.
Hit the Lights, Morrison, Ill.
Jodi Flynn Photography, Chadwick, Ill.

Rocky Waters Vineyard and Winery

2003 W Hanover Rd.
Hanover, IL
(815) 591-9706

Retreat to Nature

Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center, Utica
(Kathy Casstevens and Stephanie Casstevens, Starved Rock Lodge photos)

Liz Schmidt met Drew at San Francisco International Airport in 2009. They were seniors from Miami University, in Ohio, on their way to Dharamsala, India, for a semester abroad.

“I was famished and craving some airport-grade clam chowder,” Liz says. “Drew offered to help me find some, and the rest was history.”

After returning to the U.S. and graduating from college, the couple maintained a long-distance relationship until 2011 when they together moved to Santiago, Chile, to teach English for a year. When they returned in 2012, they began living together in Chicago.

In August 2015, Drew and Liz were strolling on the beach, enjoying the end of summer, when Drew felt an urge to be spontaneous.

“We sat on the beach for a long time, watching the sky change colors and stars come out,” Liz says. “When it was getting close to when we needed to head back home, he proposed. He didn’t do it with an engagement ring or down on one knee, but it was spontaneous and genuine, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The couple began searching for a wedding venue in Chicago, but faced difficulty in finding the “perfect space” within their budget. When they started looking outside the city, Starved Rock Lodge quickly became their top choice. The venue inside Starved Rock State Park, near Utica, meshed well with their adventurous personalities.

The couple were lucky to book the venue seven months in advance. Starved Rock Lodge has about 135 weddings per year, and reservations are often scheduled two years ahead of time.

Although the Lodge offers overnight accommodations for wedding parties, the couple opted to camp throughout their wedding weekend.

"We stayed in a tent,” Liz says. “Drew and I thought it would be fun to camp on our wedding weekend in the Starved Rock campground. We had reserved rooms at Starved Rock Lodge for our wedding party and were able to shower and get ready there. Most people thought we were crazy to camp, but for us it was a nice retreat from the wedding busyness.”

About 100 guests attended the couple’s outdoor ceremony overlooking Starved Rock. Although the May 7, 2016, wedding day had gorgeous weather, venue staff had prepared a back-up location in case of rain. The reception took place in the Great Hall with a cocktail hour in the adjacent Starved Rock Room.

Lodge staff offered a host of wedding services for the couple, including a rehearsal dinner and rehearsal breakfast, trolley transportation to take photos at the canyons and seasonal waterfalls, gifts for the bridal party, therapeutic massages for the wedding party, brunch the morning after the wedding, and wedding favors including Starved Rock wine and bubbly, freshly made fudge and popcorn, and souvenir T-shirts. The Lodge has several preferred vendors to help make wedding planning easy.

The Lodge additionally helped to accommodate personal touches to Liz and Drew’s wedding, such as a DIY trail mix bar.

The most memorable part of the wedding day for Liz was simply feeling others’ generosity and love.

“I’ll never forget how loved and supported we felt by our friends and family,” Liz says. “Though we spent many months in anticipation, worry and excitement for our wedding day, everything went pretty smoothly, thanks to the amazing people around us, including our friends, family and the Starved Rock team.”

Learn more at starvedrocklodge.com


Starved Rock Lodge, Utica
Equipment from Starved Rock Lodge
Kathy Casstevens and Stephanie Casstevens, Starved Rock Lodge
House of Brides, Schaumburg

Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center

2668 E. 873rd Road
North Utica, IL
(815) 667-4211

In Perfect Taste

The Stonegate Conference & Banquet Centre, Hoffman Estates
(Noelle Adams Photography)

It was a high school romance of a different sort that blossomed when Robert and Francesca Murphy met in 2014 at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights. Like two teens in love, the pair instantly fell head over heels.

There was only one difference: Robert and Francesca weren’t students. They were teachers for Township High School District 214 when they met at work through a mutual friend. The couple knew they were meant for each other after their first date in June 2014. “It was pretty much a done deal,” says Robert.

After they’d been together for almost a year, the pair traveled to New Buffalo, Mich., for a romantic getaway. “It’s a very romantic lakeside town,” says Robert. “We spent the whole day doing a 20-mile bike ride around the lake and through all the wineries. Later that night, on a scenic beach by the lake, I proposed.”

Robert and Francesca were married on July 16, 2016, at Our Lady of the Wayside Catholic Church in Arlington Heights. The pair had grown up just minutes from each other in Cook County. Francesca, whose parents were born in Italy, had one request when selecting a wedding venue. “For an Italian family, food is really important,” says Robert.

The couple found what they sought in The Stonegate Conference & Banquet Center in Hoffman Estates, which could accommodate the couple’s 330 guests and their culinary expectations. The Stonegate served dishes that were made entirely from scratch, including crab and seafood appetizers.

“The food exceeded all our expectations,” says Robert. “With so many guests, it baffles my mind that everybody was so ecstatic about it.”

The Stonegate hosts nearly 150 weddings each year and offers flexible reception options, allowing couples to customize their wedding experience. Francesca and Robert started the night with a cocktail hour in The Stonegate’s foyer and lakeside pavilion. There, guests enjoyed hors d’oeuvres and live music by Big Al Wetzel Band. “Everybody there who wasn’t married said they wanted to use that band for their wedding,” Robert says.

After cocktail hour, the party moved to the Ballroom, a large, elegant banquet hall attached to the pavilion tent. Around 11 p.m., the remaining guests moved back to the tent for a late-night after-party with an open bar and snacks.

“We wanted a really cool after-party,” says Robert. “Moving from the big space to a smaller space kept the intimate atmosphere going.”

The couple received plenty of remarks about the friendly service and professionalism. They know The Stonegate played a large role in their wedding day’s success.

“There are a lot of places to have a nice wedding, but Stonegate’s flexibility was amazing,” Robert says. “They are a family-owned business, and they were able to meet all our requests right away. I’m a laid-back guy, but like most people, we were pretty particular about our wedding. The last few weeks before the wedding day can be stressful, but The Stonegate was so patient and accommodating with us. Our guests were blown away by the ambiance, attention to detail and presentation of everything.”

Learn more at thestonegate.com.


Our Lady of the Wayside Catholic Church, Arlington Heights
The Stonegate Conference & Banquet Centre,
Hoffman Estates
Big Al Wetzel Band
Aga Galus, Park Ridge
Noelle Adams Photography
Doris Bridal, Highwood

The Stonegate Conference & Banquet Centre

2401 W. Higgins Road
Hoffman Estates, IL
(847) 884-7000

A Beautiful Space

The Venue, Janesville, Wis.

In the fall of 2013, the Grafft family purchased an abandoned building in downtown Janesville with grand visions of turning it into an event facility. After a year of hard work and remodeling, Britten Langfoss, daughter of the developer and current general manager, was able to be the first bride to walk down the aisle at The Venue in June 2015.

“The building is extremely unique,” Langfoss says. “It was built as a Methodist Church in 1870 and so many of the original features remain intact, such as the ornate woodwork, hardwood floors and tin ceilings. Because we have such beautiful features, the decor budget can typically be reduced.”

The Venue can host wedding ceremonies, receptions, rehearsal dinners, bridal showers and engagement parties. Couples can invite up to 200 guests for a sit-down reception and up to 300 people for a ceremony. An on-site coordinator helps to keep everything running smoothly.

The Venue is hosting about 25 weddings this year, but Langfoss anticipates that number to grow in the future. Wedding dates are being reserved as far ahead as 2018, so Langfoss recommends booking The Venue at least a year in advance, but also noted there are still dates available for 2017.

Couples can choose any licensed and insured caterer for their special day. Guests can take advantage of free parking and modern amenities, such as beautifully decorated bathrooms and an elevator.

“Start to plan early by scheduling a tour,” Langfoss says. “If you are able, plan to attend our Bridal Open House on February 26, 2017 to see how some of our favorite vendors to see our beautiful space and some of our favorite vendors.”

Learn more at thevenuejanesville.com.

The Venue of Janesville

36 S. Main St.
Janesville, WI
(608) 373-9727