By Lindsey Gapen, Jermaine Pigee, Chris Linden, Paul Anthony Arco, Anna Girgenti, Connor Carynski & Sarah Soenke
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.
Ashlyn Erickson and Tim LaBud had an instant friendship when they met in college. They studied together, walked to class together and slowly got to know each other better.
“The first thing I noticed about Ashlyn was her beautiful curly hair and genuine smile and laugh,” Tim says. “I was amazed at how outgoing and personable she was, and I knew right away that she would be a great friend.”
Ashlyn was drawn to Tim’s genuine kindness. After two years of friendship, it was time to acknowledge the truth.
“We denied for months that we were actually dating,” Ashlyn says. But when they finally admitted their feelings, it only took one date for the couple to know that they would someday get married.
The proposal took place during a weekend visit to Milwaukee. After a day of touring the city and visiting various breweries, Tim led Ashlyn down a pier by Lake Michigan at sunset.
“It was cold and we couldn’t quite make it to the end, but she cried – a lot – and said yes,” Tim says. “We celebrated the rest of the weekend with friends and family.”
Choosing Acquaviva Winery for their wedding reception was a no-brainer. The couple wanted an outdoor ceremony, and Acquaviva’s vineyard near Maple Park was a breathtaking scene.
“We wanted a unique venue with class and character, and Acquaviva’s winery and restaurant provided just that,” Tim says. “We also loved the fact that this incredible vineyard exists in Illinois. We felt like we were in Italy.”
After they booked the venue, the couple dined in Acquaviva’s restaurant many times and were consistently impressed with the delicious food and warm, welcoming atmosphere. They could tell by the staff’s energy and enthusiasm that it was a family-owned establishment.
“Furthermore, the wedding coordinator, Suzanne, was so accommodating and welcoming,” Ashlyn says. “From the first day we met her and through our wedding day, she was so incredibly helpful and made our experience so delightful.”
Suzanne Read, Acquaviva’s wedding coordinator, says the venue can accommodate up to 230 people. Ceremonies can be held in the vineyard, on a patio or inside the winery under an atrium with hand-painted frescos.
“When we have a wedding, we completely close down the restaurant and winery for the entire day,” Suzanne says. “The timeline of the day is up to each couple.”
Ashlyn and Tim booked their wedding 13 months in advance. Already, Acquaviva is booking weddings into 2020.
“We have heard from so many of our friends and family what an amazing time they had and what a beautiful venue Acquaviva was,” Tim says. “People raved about the scenic ceremony, the incredible food and wine, and kept asking how we found this place.”
The LaBuds recommend that couples visit Acquaviva a few times in advance of their wedding to day to become familiar with the space, try all the food and wine, and scout out the best spots for photos. There’s a tranquil pond with weeping willow trees, a beautiful wooded area, an estate house, an apple orchard and, of course, the vineyard itself.
“It was everything we could have hoped for and more,” Tim says.” - LG
Paul and Lisa Dailing prefer to make their own traditions, and that’s exactly what they did when planning their wedding.
The venues they saw in the suburbs struck them as dull. What they liked in Chicago wasn’t affordable.
Somewhere in the couple’s searching, friends and family started mentioning Burpee Museum of Natural History, located in Paul’s hometown of Rockford. The museum is well-known for its rich collection, which includes one of the world’s most complete juvenile Tyrannosaurus rexes.
What the couple were about to discover is that Burpee has also become a popular location to host wedding ceremonies and receptions, with several settings including a 400-seat outdoor courtyard and a Riverview Room & Terrace that overlooks the Rock River.
Paul remembered visiting the museum as a kid and volunteering there as a student.
“Never did I think I’d get married there,” he says. “Our guests really enjoyed taking their drinks around the museum during the cocktail hour.”
Paul met Lisa online and set a first date with the Lincolnshire native in early 2015. The magazine editor and school teacher quickly realized they’d found their match. A proposal came quickly.
“I was waiting in her apartment for her to return home from work,” Paul recalls. “We were planning to go to a park and take some sandwiches, just to have a picnic, and I was going to propose there. I was looking in the mirror and realized that I looked as nervous as I felt. I just thought, ‘I don’t have the poker face for this.’ So I proposed right there.”
As they planned their wedding, the couple made several choices to buck tradition in their own unique way. Instead of a formal wedding dress, Lisa bought a lacy white dress and had a friend make her veil. Lisa’s father, a Cook County judge, led the ceremony.
In many ways, Burpee Museum played perfectly to the couple’s personal style.
“Lisa loved the back courtyard area,” says Paul. “She likes to say she wanted it for the riverwalk and I wanted it for the dinosaurs – which I think is sort of true.”
They also found an important ally in Ciel Rheingans, who joined the Burpee team midway through Paul and Lisa’s yearlong engagement. Paul credits Ciel with being detail-oriented and quick to respond.
Paul and Lisa were married in Burpee’s outdoor amphitheater on June 24, 2017. Their 120 guests enjoyed a cocktail hour while touring the museum and had fun collecting the copper spray-painted dinosaurs Lisa used for placeholders.
“Use the space, and incorporate it into your planning,” says Paul. “One thing we heard about was that, if you had kids (and we didn’t), you could have a scavenger hunt around the museum.”
Reflecting on his own wedding, Paul offers just one tip for couples planning their own celebration at Burpee.
Raul Leon has witnessed many happy moments in his career. The facility manager for the Byron Forest Preserve District, in Byron, Ill., has seen marriage proposals, engagement photos, rehearsal dinners, wedding ceremonies and wedding receptions.
“We have a venue where everything can happen,” Leon says. “And, we’re very affordable in comparison to other area venues.”
The newly renovated main-floor museum of the Jarrett Prairie Center can hold up to 110 people, while a new deck, overlooking 450 acres of prairie, can seat an additional 150 people. The lower level of the Jarrett Prairie Center can accommodate up to 180 people for rehearsals, ceremonies and receptions. In addition, the pavilion at PrairieView Golf Club can accommodate 200 people.
At both the golf club and the Jarrett Center, couples can access bar services, ample parking and kitchen facilities. And, they can take advantage of photo opportunities in the many outdoor areas that include a wooden bridge and stage.
“Since we are located on one of the highest points in Ogle County, the scenery at the Byron Forest Preserve is like no other venue,” Leon says. “It’s absolutely beautiful in every season.”
He recommends booking at least 30 days in advance, however, accommodations can be made as far as a year in advance or at the last minute – if space is available.
“As with most venues, Saturdays fill up quickly,” Leon says. “It’s best to book as soon as you can. For more information, visit byronforestpreserve.com, find us on Facebook, and please join us at Rockford’s Own Bridal Expo on Sept. 17, starting at 2 p.m. at the Tebala Event Center.” - LG
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.”
D’Andrea Banquets & Conference Center, Crystal Lake, Ill.
A night out at a Schaumburg bar changed the lives of Kevin and Ashley Schwartz. A mutual friend introduced the two during a night out.
“We were attracted to each other by catching each other’s eyes, and I was really into the music he was listening to at the time,” Ashley says. “We just clicked.”
After six years of dating, Kevin proposed to Ashley on Christmas morning in 2014, in front of his immediate family. Ashley says she was a little suspicious that day, since Kevin was acting nervous, but she never expected he would propose to her on a holiday.
“I was really surprised and happy, and he could barely get all the words out before I said yes,” Ashley recalls.
In January 2016, Ashley attended a bridal show at D’Andrea Banquets & Conference Center, in Crystal Lake. The spacious and elegant venue boasts granite dance floors, crystal lighting and chandeliers, and elegant decorations. D’Andrea has an on-site wedding planner who helps to plan and execute weddings from conception to cleanup.
With plenty of wedding packages to choose from, the venue can host a special wedding that fits within any budget.
While Ashley attended the bridal show, luck was on her side. She won $1,000 in a door prize giveaway. It was just one more confirmation that she’d found the right venue.
Kevin and Ashley were married on June 16, 2017, and celebrated their reception at D’Andrea.
“Out guests loved it,” Ashley says. “We received many compliments for days after the wedding. People are still talking about it.”
D’Andrea offers flexible reception options, which gives couples the chance to customize their wedding experience. But planning ahead is encouraged.
“We booked our venue almost two years in advance, since we really wanted the room that included the atrium,” Ashley says.
The facility was also able to accommodate Ashley’s love for great food, thanks to expert chefs who take pride in presenting creative and delicious menu options, such as shrimp scampi, lobster tail and filet mignon.
“They really accommodated all of my needs,” Ashley says. “They held food for a late-arriving table, and I made sure I took the time to eat on my busy day.”
If the day wasn’t already special, the die-hard Chicago Blackhawks fans also ran into Pat Foley, the team’s play-by-play television announcer.
“He was at the country club when we were there for the ceremony,” Ashley says. “Our guestbooks at D’Andrea were Blackhawks jerseys for people to sign.”
The couple are still flying high, thanks to their wedding at D’Andrea, and they know the staff played a large role in making their dreams become a reality.
“It was the best day ever,” Ashley says. “Lynnette [Kaszuba, event planner], was great from the first day. Enjoy the moment, because when the day comes, it flies by.” - JP
There was never a doubt where Deborah Byrd wanted to marry Eric Wendt. It’s the same place they enjoyed their first date five years ago, the same place where they became engaged one year ago, and the place they love to go for a night out. And when they asked if they could host their wedding there, the team at FoxFire Restaurant, in Geneva, couldn’t help but say yes.
Did she look anyplace else?
“No,” she says. “This one always stood out.”
It was the same way she knew that first night that Eric was a keeper. They’d found each other online through match.com and after a little chatting decided to meet. FoxFire was an easy midpoint for Deborah, who lived in Geneva, and Eric, who lived in St. Charles.
“We spent hours just talking with each other,” Deborah recalls. “It was amazing how many things we had in common.”
They found their birthdays were just a week apart, and they realized their personalities were almost the same.
“I can walk into a room and just start making friends with everyone I meet,” says Deborah. “He’s the same way. And, it helps that I think he’s extremely handsome.”
That first night, they also bonded over the challenges of raising kids as single parents – Eric’s three and Deborah’s four. Once the families finally met, there was an instant connection among the kids. “Eric is a wonderful father,” Deborah says.
The pair would usually find themselves at FoxFire for a casual night out. In August 2017, as the pair were getting ready to celebrate their 50th birthdays, Eric prepared to take his girlfriend for a fancy night out. She thought they were going somewhere else, but Eric and the children were conspiring. His oldest daughter called and invited the pair for a quick drink at FoxFire.
“We walk in and we start talking, and Nicole says, ‘Have you ever seen this cool room they have back here? Let me show you,’” recalls Deborah. “We walk over there, and all my family and all of his family are there. It was a surprise birthday party.”
But the best was yet to come. The cake came out, and Eric offered to make a birthday toast.
“He starts talking about the day we met, and how, on that night, he asked me if he could call me his girlfriend the next day,” Deborah recalls. “And then he says, ‘Today, I have a different question. Will you marry me?’”
The couple later approached event coordinator Samantha about hosting a wedding at the “fine casual” steakhouse in downtown Geneva, where six other couples have already tied the knot. The main dining room typically accommodates 100 to 120 wedding guests, though it’s held as many as 150. An outdoor patio and a private party room are also popular places for rehearsal dinners.
Deborah loved the stylish interior, with its stained concrete floors and exposed architectural elements, but it was the people that really sold her, including owners Curt, K.C. and Jim Gulbro.
“They recognized us, and when we asked if they’d host the wedding, they were thrilled,” says Deborah. “They’re helping us to plan and going out of their way to make everything happen.”
For one Sunday afternoon this August, the entire restaurant will be converted into a wedding chapel and reception venue. Deborah plans to stand near the fireplace for the ceremony, and after a cake-cutting, crews will prepare for a reception.
Deborah loves that so many services – including venue, catering and place settings – are being handled all in one place.
“We’ve felt so secure in picking the venue, knowing that they’re taking care of everything and everyone,” she says. – CL
Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, St. Charles, Ill.
Daisy Gonzalez of Crystal Lake still chuckles when she recalls the story of how she met her husband, Luis.
She was a junior and he was a sophomore at South Elgin High School. At lunch one day, Daisy brought a shirt to the cafeteria that she had just made in fashion design class. Luis happened to be sitting behind her at another table.
“I didn’t know who he was,” she says. “I was showing my friend the shirt; Luis saw it and offered to model it. He took off his shirt and got up in front of everyone to wear the shirt I made. He was pretty annoying.”
Luis doesn’t disagree. “I was a goofy kid, and I had a little crush on her. I never thought at the time we’d end up together. But after we started talking more, I really fell for her.”
The couple dated for seven years before they were married on June 16, 2017, at the pergola located at Mt. St. Mary Park, a St. Charles Park District facility. The happy couple was surrounded by family, friends and even Luna, their Siberian husky.
“She’s like our baby,” says Luis, a groundskeeper. “There was no way we weren’t going to have her there. That was one of the highlights of the day.”
Unfortunately, rain poured during the ceremony. “It looked like I took a shower,” says Daisy, a legal translator for an attorney’s office. “We all got soaked.”
Despite the rough beginning, the skies cleared in time for the reception, which was held at another park district facility, the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a 10,500 square-foot building featuring a spacious lobby that’s 20 feet tall, and floor-to-ceiling windows with spectacular views of the oak savanna, wetlands and prairie located just outside the front doors.
Daisy’s advice to other couples is to remain calm. “Things are going to go wrong,” she says. “We forgot to bring our plates and silverware for the reception. But you deal with it, move on and enjoy the day. Just go with the flow.”
“We looked at other places, but Hickory Knolls was the right fit for what we needed,” she adds. “I wanted something with a vintage look, along with neutral colors and a woodsy feel. We found that in Hickory Knolls. It was spacious and surrounded by nature. Other places didn’t have that same feel.”
Another appealing feature at Hickory Knolls is the indoors wildlife exhibit that includes turtles, snakes, spiders and other creatures. It captured the attention of the couple’s younger guests. “The staff was very friendly, and everything was beautiful,” says Luis. “As long as we were with our family, we were happy.” - PAA
The more time Jake Gerasch spent with his future wife, Michelle Girard, the more he began to change.
“I was happier, I worked harder in school and my friends and family loved her,” says Jake, who grew up in Cudahy, Wis., and met Michelle in college. “She makes me a better person and the more I realized it, the more I started saving for a ring.”
That ring was put to good use on a hot and steamy July day in 2015, when Jake proposed to Michelle by the pond outside of Starlight Theater in Rockford. Her sister Kate, who is also her best friend, and Kate’s fiance, Andrew, were looking on.
“Jake got down on one knee and of course I said ‘yes,’” Michelle says. “It was absolutely perfect. He made sure I dressed up and had my best friend/sister there, which meant the world to me. He picked out the ring on his own and I couldn’t have imagined anything better.”
When it came time to pick a wedding venue to tie the knot, Forest Hills Country Club had everything the couple wanted and more.
“The hall and the grounds are beautiful, and the menu options were exactly what we were looking for,” Jake says. “Our package included a cocktail hour with hors d’oeurves, an amazing dinner, cake cutting and plating, bar service, linens, uplighting and we were guaranteed as a private event.”
Forest Hills wedding receptions include a ballroom with seating for up to 280 guests, with unobstructed views, complementary use of all in-house audio and visual equipment, and an attached cocktail & hors d’oeurves reception room throughout the night.
The ballroom’s drapery along the ceiling, with lights shimmering down, creates a beautiful atmosphere.
“Overall, the venue itself was perfect,” says Michelle, a Rockford native. “The stunning drapery and uplighting were included, and we were granted access to the impeccably kept grounds for pictures. The event staff was always so prompt with getting back to us, and they were extremely easy to work with.”
Things were so organized and elegant at Forest Hills Country Club that the couple’s guests took notice.
“We have heard nothing but compliments from family and friends about the staff, the food and the beautiful ballroom,” Michelle says.
The couple had to plan their wedding 18 months in advance to lock in a June 24, 2017, wedding date at Forest Hills Country Club.
“We were engaged for two years, which allowed us to get some of the big details out of the way early,” Michelle says. “Even booking that early, two other weekends in June had already been booked. The booking process was a piece of cake, and the staff answered all of our questions promptly.”
The couple appreciated how helpful and professional the Forest Hills Country Club team was during the planning process.
“We cannot say enough good things about Chris Magdziarz, banquet manager, and the staff that worked so hard to make our day go perfectly,” Michelle says. “And if you have any debate over booking with Forest Hills, forget about it because you won’t be disappointed.” - JP
Jessica Hohler had a crush on Joe McCuen in middle school. Unfortunately, Joe was more interested in skateboarding than girls at that time.
“We actually met in second grade,” Jessica says. “Our moms were best friends when we were kids.”
The two lost touch in high school when Joe’s family moved away from Belvidere. Years later, Jessica was pleasantly surprised when Joe sent her a Facebook friend request.
“We started exchanging messages and decided to meet up for dinner, drinks and watching a Blackhawks game,” Jessica says. “It was so easy to talk to each other.”
The childhood friends became husband and wife on May 27, 2017. After a beautiful ceremony at Midway Village Museum, the couple entered their reception at Hilton Garden Inn wearing personalized Blackhawks jerseys saying “Mr. McCuen” and “Mrs. McCuen.”
Jessica knew exactly what she wanted with decorations, but the Hilton Garden Inn staff surpassed all of her expectations.
“They made it look even better than I envisioned,” she says. “The staff was just amazing and so helpful with everything.”
The hotel setting was also ideal for the McCuens’ guests, since no one had to travel after enjoying an open bar experience.
“Everyone told us they had a great time,” Jessica says. “We received many compliments on the food, decorations and venue.”
A variety of wedding packages are available at Hilton Garden Inn. All come with room setup, hors d’oeuvres, a champagne toast and cake cutting. The McCuens opted for a package that included dinner and an open bar.
“We booked Hilton Garden Inn more than a year in advance,” Jessica says. “We highly recommend having your reception here.” - LG
Klehm Arboretum and Botanic Garden, Rockford, Ill.
Many years ago, Derek Peach asked Andrea Hannaford to their high school’s homecoming dance.
“I actually said no,” Andrea laughs. “But he ended up becoming my best guy friend in high school.”
The couple lost touch during college, but occasionally they’d see each other around their hometown of St. Charles. After graduating, Andrea decided to reach out.
“He was a firefighter and I had just graduated from nursing school,” she says. “I texted him and we’ve talked every day since then.”
After many years of dating, Andrea was itching to get married. She was thrilled when Derek proposed during a hike at Starved Rock State Park, in Utica, Ill.
“I was complaining because I wore brand new leggings and white shoes, and our new puppy was jumping all over us,” Andrea remembers. “But when Derek proposed at this ledge overlooking the river, it was perfect. I forgot all about my shoes.”
Andrea visited numerous wedding venues, but it was Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden, in Rockford, that won her over. She knew she wanted an outdoor wedding in a beautiful setting, and Klehm’s 155-acre campus of majestic trees and gardens fit her vision perfectly.
Not only that, but the wedding coordinator, Mary Pat Muzzarelli, was a delight to work with.
“She went above and beyond to answer all of my questions,” Andrea says. “If I needed something, she was there in two seconds.”
Klehm’s recent renovations can accommodate 25 to 400 guests for ceremonies and receptions. A classic, white tent with an adjoining terrace sits just steps away from beautiful scenery.
“They even let us stay a little bit past closing time,” Andrea says. “Everything was perfect.” - LG
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.”
Brittney Kulisek was impressed with Tom Chambers when she met him on a blind date. He was cute and chivalrous, and his great sense of humor kept her laughing for hours.
Tom was similarly smitten at first sight.
“Brittney was beautiful,” he says. “When we met, I loved that she spent most of the time talking, so I didn’t have to. She drank good beer, and not only insisted on paying for herself, but did so with a Chicago Bears card.”
Though Brittney lived in DeKalb and Tom lived in Rockford, Tom knew after only a week that he wanted to someday marry Brittney. He proposed a couple of months later when the couple were on vacation in San Antonio, Texas.
“We met my best friend, Courtnie, for dinner on the river walk,” Brittney says. “Courtnie insisted on taking photos, so we proceeded to walk up and down the river walk trying to find the perfect place. Eventually, Tom found a bridge and got down on one knee while I was turned away. When I turned around, I couldn’t hold back the yes.”
The couple began searching for a wedding venue immediately. Tom’s sister recommended Oak Lane in Oregon – a unique 1800s dairy barn remodeled into a chic reception hall. Set on 16 acres,
Oak Lane offers five outdoor ceremony locations as well as an indoor space that can accommodate up to 180 guests. Receptions are held in the barn’s hayloft upstairs.
Adding character to the venue are two potbelly pigs, Baconette and Hambone; two llamas, Dilly Dally and Tessa; a Belted Hampshire sheep named Lucy and a lamb named Lambchop.
Oak Lane was the first and last venue the couple looked at.
“We loved the space, the barn and the ambience that it all had,” Brittney says. “We knew it was the one. We literally booked it a week after we got engaged.”
Brittney and Tom were married on May 13, 2017. Oak Lane’s owner, Jodi Horner, was always quick to respond whenever the couple emailed with questions. She even provided intentionally mismatched wooden chairs, tables, linens, bartenders and decor items. Guests could dance the night away upstairs, hang out at the bar downstairs, or venture outside to enjoy a “bride’s cigar bar” set up by Brittney’s dad.
“We feel like we got way more than we paid for,” Brittney says. “We loved that we had the outdoor ceremony followed by the reception in the barn. We feel like this was unique among our friends and family. The animals at the farm were a fun part, too. Truly, the day was more amazing than we could have even dreamed of.”
The couple made their wedding unique by setting up lawn games and by catering woodfire brick oven pizza. Brittney’s advice is to trust Jodi to make your day perfect.
“She’s even the one who recommended our DJ,” Brittney says. “She definitely knows what she is doing.” - LG
Oscar Swan Country Inn, Geneva, Ill., & Galena, Ill.
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.
Karen Braden almost declined when her co-worker and close friend invited her out one evening.
“She suggested I meet her brother, Justin [McQuillan], and I was absolutely not looking for a relationship at the time,” Karen says. “I almost decided not to go.”
But after some convincing, Karen agreed.
“I’m so glad I did, as that’s when Justin and I first met,” she says. “Needless to say we hit it off and ended up talking late into the night until last call. Justin asked for my number and we went out on our first official date the next week.”
After Karen “survived” a week-long vacation with Justin’s family, he knew he wanted to get married. Karen remembers the proposal as a “whirlwind dream come true.”
“Justin had it secretly and thoughtfully planned out for months,” she says. “From the ring he had chosen to all the travel details, it was definitely more of what you’d consider a surprise proposal vacation.”
With only three days notice, Karen packed her bags for a surprise getaway to New Orleans – one of the couple’s favorite places. Justin had even contacted Karen’s boss to make sure she could have the time off.
“My boss decided to oblige, even arranging a fake schedule to help Justin carry out his surprise plans successfully,” Karen says.
On the second day of the trip, Justin got down on one knee during a romantic walk in the French Quarter.
“It was truly an amazing engagement vacation that we’ll always cherish and remember,” Karen says.
Early on in the wedding process, the couple knew they wanted a “one-stop-shop” wedding venue. They pictured themselves enjoying an entire weekend with family and friends while their rehearsal dinner, ceremony and reception all took place at one location. They also wanted their accommodations, day-of preparations and photo opportunities to all be on-site.
“There weren’t many venues fitting our checklist that also stayed on par with our budget,” Karen remembers. But then, she discovered Pheasant Run Resort.
The golf course was an added bonus.
“What really got us excited about choosing Pheasant Run, though, was when we saw the New Orleans Bourbon Street replica,” Karen says. “Having recently gotten engaged in the actual city of New Orleans, this struck us as the perfect place to have our wedding day.”
The couple booked the venue a little over a year in advance and were married on Sept. 29, 2017. They received nothing but positive feedback from their guests.
“They definitely enjoyed the beautiful lakeside ceremony, as well as our cocktail hour on Bourbon Street, which was so fun and unique,” Karen says. “We received so many compliments on the beautiful reception room and how excellent the food was. I also think they loved everything the resort had to offer as far as amenities and convenience. And of course, all the children in our family and bridal party had fun in the multiple swimming pools. We truly didn’t have to leave the resort at all for the three days we stayed.”
The McQuillans remember Pheasant Run’s staff as accommodating, kind and helpful.
“They 100 percent delivered on what they promised,” Karen says. “They were so on top of everything the entire weekend, and we were just treated so well. Everything turned out perfect and it truly made our wedding experience a dream.” – LG
For Jeremy Bloom and Michelle Casiello, a simple smile ignited a lifetime of love and happiness.
The couple originally connected online, and when they met in person, they were attracted to each other’s smiles.
“I thought Jeremy had a very sincere smile and he could make me laugh easily,” Michelle says. “Jeremy was also attracted to my eyes and smile.”
The couple rented a condo in suburban Lisle, Ill., for about a year-and-a-half before the owner decided to sell it.
“That meant we had to find a new place to live,” Michelle says. “We decided that instead of renting, we wanted to buy. That decision made us realize we pictured spending the rest of our lives together and we began house hunting.”
On a cold day in December 2015, the day before Jeremy’s birthday, Michelle made dinner reservations in downtown Chicago. Michelle loves Christmas, so the couple also went to the Lincoln Park Zoo to see the Christmas ZooLights.
“After walking around and looking at the lights and animals, he pulled me into a photo booth and proposed as the machine took pictures,” Michelle says. “Of course, I said yes.”
Afterwards, Jeremy hijacked Michelle’s dinner reservations. What was supposed to be Jeremy’s birthday dinner became an engagement dinner, complete with champagne, personalized menus and rose petals.
The couple knew they wanted to get married at a brewery, and they found everything they wanted at Prairie Street Brewing Co., in Rockford. The riverside restaurant and brewery has three rooms available for wedding receptions. The couple locked down their venue in January 2016 and were married on July 1, 2017.
“We looked at a few breweries, and we liked Prairie Street Brewhouse because of its rustic, industrial look and the ability to hold our ceremony on the dock,” Michelle says.
Prairie Street Brewhouse offers scenic river views and an old, industrial feel. The dock where Michelle and Jeremy held their ceremony was a gorgeous setting along the water. The building itself creates a wonderful backdrop to a couple’s perfect day.
Michelle says the staff at Prairie Street Brewhouse was easy to work with.
“They went above and beyond,” she says. “I bought Jeremy a watch as a wedding present, but it was too big. Nicole, (the assistant events manager at Prairie Street Brewhouse) brought in a jeweler to take out some of the links so Jeremy could wear it for the wedding.”
Since the wedding was at a brewery, it’s only right the couple had a beer-themed event.
“We took the beer theme and ran with it,” Michelle says. “The boutonnieres had hops, wheat and beer bottle caps, and our color was green to match fresh hops. Our table numbers were beer tappers and our cake was also decorated in hops and wheat.”
Michelle credits the Prairie Street staff for not only making the day run smoothly, but for inciting positive reviews from their guests.
“Our guests loved the brewhouse,” she says. “They raved about everything, from the food to the service and the venue staff. We got many texts, emails and phone calls afterwards from people saying it was the best wedding ever.” - JP
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.
Rockford native Libby Leatherby’s wedding was a happy occasion for many reasons, especially because her son, Noah, was there to see his mom get married.
Just two months after Mitch Leatherby proposed to Libby on Mother’s Day, in 2015, Noah was diagnosed with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer that forms in muscle tissue. The couple cancelled their wedding plans to take care of Noah.
“We decided to put the wedding on the back-burner and get our son through treatment,” Libby says. “Our son’s health was our first priority and always will be.”
As the months progressed, Noah’s health started to improve. The more his health improved, the more his parents planned that wedding they’d left behind.
In the spring of 2016, when it came time to search for a wedding venue, the couple learned of The Standard, a wedding venue that was then still in the works. It’s owned by Brent Hughes and his wife, Betsy – both personal friends of Libby’s. Their new venue, which opened late in 2016, takes advantage of the decades-old building by putting on full display its beautiful concrete and red brick skeleton.
“When we booked The Standard, it was pretty much a construction site,” Libby says. “We were able to see their vision through photos on an iPad, and we used our imagination to envision what the end result would look like. Knowing Betsy for so many years, I knew she had an eye for art and style, and I knew it would be beautiful.”
Libby says their May 20, 2017, wedding couldn’t have gone better.
“Our wedding happened at a venue we didn’t even know about when we were engaged,” she says. “It’s the most beautiful venue I’ve ever been to. Even the bathrooms are beautiful.”
Whether it’s weddings or another social occastion, The Standard’s crew helps to eliminate many of the hassles and stresses of a wedding day. The rooftop patio is equipped for outdoor weddings, and it provides a sweeping overlook of downtown Rockford’s rooftops and riverscape. An adjacent conservatory and full bar provide a great location for cocktail hour.
Down on the second floor is a 260-guest dining hall with all of the amenities for dinner and dancing. Food is provided by Chef Paul Sletten, who owns several downtown Rockford staples.
London Avenue Designs, which specializes in interior decorating, wedding planning and event design, is stationed on the building’s first-floor retail area.
Libby, her bridesmaids, her mother and mother-in-law had their hair and makeup done at Arch, a beauty boutique also located on the first floor of The Standard.
“Everything that we needed was taken care of inside one building, which was extremely convenient,” Libby says.
The Standard’s many amenities proved helpful when it rained on the day of the wedding. The ceremony was easily relocated to the conservatory
“A lot of brides who have an outdoor wedding would panic if it rains, but there was never that feeling because we had a solid backup plan,” Libby says. “We got married in The Standard’s conservatory, and it wound up being just as beautiful."
Noah, who has now been in remission for nine months, served as the ring bearer.
“He was definitely the star of the show at the wedding,” Libby says. “This was so emotional, for more reasons than marrying my husband. It was just so great having Noah there.” - JP
Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center, Utica, Ill.
Five years ago, Hayley and Manuel Villafuerte started talking through a dating website. Four months later, they finally met in October 2012. They hit it off – “he was a very kind and funny man,” says Hayley, and, after nearly six years of dating, she said, ‘I do’ on March 30, 2018.
While the happy couple, who live in Grundy County, Ill., had many decisions to make, selecting a wedding and reception venue wasn’t difficult at all. They selected the only venue they visited: Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center, in Utica, Ill.
“Starved Rock has always held a special place in my heart,” says Hayley, a teacher. “I love that you can stay where you have your ceremony and reception. An all-in-one-place is very convenient not only for the bride and groom, but your guests. Starved Rock was so easy to work with; they made everything go very smoothly.”
Starved Rock offers two indoor ceremony venues for couples. The Great Hall can accommodate up to 200 guests and the ceremony takes place in front of the largest two-sided fireplace in Illinois. Because they were married in early spring, Hayley and Manuel got married in front of that fireplace. For more intimate ceremonies, the Canyonside Cabin can hold 30 guests. Both locations are backup locations in the event of rain.
Starved Rock Lodge also has two outdoor venues. The Sunrise Shelter is located east of the lodge and has room for 200 guests. Couples exchange vows surrounded by towering pines, while overlooking the top of Starved Rock. The Canyonside Courtyard holds 30 guests while still displaying the beauty of the great outdoors.
Admittedly, Hayley and Manuel, a correctional officer, had wedding-day jitters, but they found some funny moments during the ceremony. “I was so worried about repeating the ring vows during the ceremony,” says Hayley, “that I never dreamed while saying my vows that my husband’s ring would not fit. But in our wedding video, you can hear my nervous laughter while I continued to repeat my vows and struggle with the ring. We still laugh about it months later.”
The couple also decided to make their wedding a cellphone-free zone to avoid any distractions during the ceremony. The groom apparently didn’t get the memo. “I typed my vows on an index card,” says Hayley, “but when it was my husband’s turn to speak, he reached inside his suit jacket and pulled out his phone. Our guests laughed as he read his vows from his “‘forbidden’ cellphone.”
Hayley’s advice? Keep it simple. “In the long run, it will be just as perfect as someone who had an extravagant wedding, and you will thank yourself in the long run. Remember, it’s your wedding day. Cherish every moment of it because it really goes fast.” - PAA
The Stonegate Conference & Banquet Centre, Hoffman Estates, Ill.
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.”
Terah and Steve Holland usually dress casually when they go out to a restaurant, but something was unusual on the night of February 6, 2016.
As Terah was getting ready for dinner, she noticed Steve was putting on a nice shirt and sport jacket.
“I was confused, because I thought we were just going out to a casual dinner,” Terah says. “I didn’t understand why he was getting dressed up. He said he hadn’t worn the jacket in a long time, so he wanted to wear it.”
The couple, who met at medical school in an orthopedics interest group at Southern Illinois University, were about to leave for dinner when Steve proposed.
“He got down on one knee and said, ‘1,460 days ago, I was planning my last first date ever. Terah, will you marry me,’” Terah recalls. “I said yes, of course, and he quickly got us out the door to get in an Uber to go to a restaurant for dinner. When we got to the restaurant, he had surprised me with asking both my parents and his parents to come into the city. He planned the whole thing, and I had no idea they were there.”>
The couple wanted to get married somewhere close to Terah’s hometown of Polo, Ill. She has a friend who works in nearby Freeport and suggested the couple take a look at The Wagner House.
“We went to check it out without an appointment and they were happy to show us around,” Terah says.
What attracted the couple to The Wagner House was its industrial, rustic appearance. The three-story, former industrial warehouse was built in 1903 and was one of the first buildings to have electricity in Freeport.
Today, it serves as a historically preserved urban oasis. It also serves as Freeport and Stephenson County’s premier wine bar, meeting place and event venue.
“I like how it’s a repurposed old factory,” Terah says. “It was also the right amount of space and it seemed like a fun place. The Wagner House is unique because it has a cool, rustic appearance, and the decorations and layout are great.”
The couple tied the knot on May 6, 2017. They booked The Wagner House more than a year in advance to ensure they got the date they wanted.
“The staff gave us vendor suggestions and told us who they worked with often,” Terah says. “They know who does good work, and it was helpful that the DJ, photographer and the caterer worked weddings at The Wagner House before. They knew what they were doing.”
Looking back on everything, Terah remembers her wedding day as a success.
“We had a great time, and we wouldn’t have chosen anything different,” she says. “We were happy we went with The Wagner House. It was perfect.” - JP
Ben Blair tried finding love online, but he wasn’t having any luck. So, he went to a friend and co-worker for some help.
“She said I should talk to her friend Julia,” says Ben, a Stockton native. “I initiated a conversation with Julia and we went on a couple of double dates with my co-worker.”
A month into the relationship, Ben knew Julia, also of Stockton, was “the one.”
“The first month into dating, I knew I loved her,” he says. “I know it’s crazy to say that, but we hit it off early on and things were going really well. She has a great smile, she’s a genuinely nice person and she’s beautiful.”
In September 2016, Ben knew it was time to propose. The couple had recently bought a house, and in the kitchen was a brand-new countertop.
“Someone had set a glass on the countertop and it left a water ring on the counter,” Ben says. “Julia was not happy about that.”
One day, Julia left to run a casual errand. Once she was out the door, Ben set his great-grandmother’s wedding ring on the counter – right on top of the blemish.
“She came back from the store, and I told her there was another huge ring on the counter,” he says. “She came in upset, thinking there would be another ring of water on the counter, and when she looked down, she saw the actual ring. I asked her if she would marry me and she said yes.”
When it came time to select a wedding venue, Ben knew he wanted to use Woodbine Bend Golf Course in Stockton. It offers several outdoor spaces, including decks and event areas on the course, making it an ideal venue for weddings and receptions year-round.
To make sure they secured the location, the couple booked the venue about eight months in advance.
“It’s inexpensive, I know owner Sam Stoddard pretty well and the venue is in Stockton,” Ben says. “We also got married there, so we were able to do everything in one location.”
The couple were married on Dec. 9, 2017, in front of 180 people, the capacity of the banquet hall.
Ben says the staff at Woodbine was very flexible, so the couple could truly customize their experience.
Since the wedding happened a little more than two weeks before Christmas, their decor took on a Christmas theme.
The cake had red and green Christmas decorations, Julia wore a red dress and Ben wore a red vest. The maid of honor wore a green dress and the best man wore a green vest. The ceremony was held in front of a fireplace surrounded by decorated Christmas trees.
“I think everyone had a good time,” Ben says. “There was a dance floor on one end of the room and a bar at the other end. If people wanted to dance, they could do that, and if people wanted to hang out and enjoy a few drinks, they could do that as well.”
Looking back, Ben says his wedding at Woodbine couldn’t have gone better.
“The wedding was pretty relaxed, and we tried to keep everything simple,” he says. “We wanted to enjoy ourselves, and we did. Everything was perfect.” – JP