By Lindsey Gapen, Jermaine Pigee, Chris Linden, Paul Anthony Arco, 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.
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
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.
Eric and Lindsey Eggum met in high school, but they never really spoke much. Years later, the two reconnected at a mutual friend’s going-away party.
“The second he walked in the door I knew it was something different,” Lindsey says. “He has this way of lighting up the room and making everyone around him laugh. We’ve been together ever since.”
One month into dating, Lindsey knew she wanted to get married. She waited patiently for what ended up being a magical proposal.
“We love going to Cubs games together, and we have a friend who works for the Cubs, so we went on a tour of the stadium,” Lindsey says. “At the end of the tour, Eric got down on one knee behind home plate. He brought our friend, who is a photographer, and he captured it all. After that, Eric took me to our favorite rooftop bar and had all of our best friends there to surprise me. My best friend from Charleston was there, as well as my other best friend who had just had a baby. It was the most special day.”
The couple knew they wanted to get married in Beloit after touring the rooms at Ironworks Hotel. With their accommodations set, all they needed was a venue. Less than 10 minutes away, Lindsey stumbled upon Beloit Club and was instantly hooked.
Even the locker rooms were stunning.
“Our family and friends had nothing but great things to say,” she says. “Everyone loved it and commented on how beautiful the venue was.”
The couple booked Beloit Club a year in advance for their ceremony and reception. The on-site wedding coordinator, Megan, helped the day to run smoothly as planned.
Beloit Club also handled the catering.
“Their gnocchi is literally to die for,” Lindsey says. “Our guests loved the chicken, too. I had people texting me about the gnocchi the next day, though. People seriously underestimate vegetarian dishes.”
Lindsey’s last piece of advice? Trust the process, and trust your vendors.
“They know everything and will make sure it’s all done,” she says. “I had no clue what I was walking into at our reception, but it was a beautiful surprise. Every wedding is unique in its own way. Everyone has a different style and color palette and adds their own special character. Our wedding was very simple and detailed to us.” - LG
As Lora Rice and Bryan Moscinski searched for their ideal wedding venue, the two longtime friends knew they wanted a smaller, more intimate celebration. They preferred something outdoors, but they also wanted the reassurance of an indoor backup.
Then a friend turned them on to Burpee Museum of Natural History, in Rockford, a venue better known for its famous fossils than its social events spaces. It had everything they expected, plus a staff that remained flexible to the couple’s needs.
And, the location’s natural, picturesque setting along the Rock River allowed the couple the space they desired, with the flexibility to make their event intimate and special.
Burpee Museum has a scenic ceremony spot on the banks of the Rock River as well as indoor space for large receptions. Brides are invited to prepare next door at the historic Barnes Mansion, a riverside home that once hosted lively gatherings of Rockford’s elites.
Lora loved the setting, and she especially loved the easy backup option: the Mahlburg Auditorium, a high-ceilinged social space with large windows, located just off the museum entrance.
It didn’t hurt that the couple’s guests and children were invited to explore the museum throughout the day.
“I had concerns about the weather,” says Lora. “They immediately said, ‘Here’s what we can do.’ It was easy to explain what you’re looking for. There’s not just one wedding package. They’ll work with you on anything.”
On June 25, 2017, Bryan and Lora were married at Burpee Museum’s Riverfront Amphitheater, the Rock River providing a scenic backdrop to the day. With their closest family and friends attending, the couple enjoyed a simple champagne-and-cake reception, hosted outside on the terrace, which has space for cocktails, eating and dancing. The Barnes Mansion and its nearby turn-of-the-century boathouse provided picturesque scenery for wedding photos as bride and groom prepared.
Looking back on her wedding day, Lora is grateful for the Burpee team’s eagerness to make her day special.
“It has so much flexibility you wouldn’t consider,” she says. “Be sure to talk about your vision.” - CL
After 2.5 years of dating, Seth McCammond was ready to propose Marta.
The couple had met while working at a pet store.
“We clicked right away,” Marta says. “Talking to each other was easy – we had similar interests and the same sense of humor.”
On March 12, 2016, Seth organized a family game night at his parents’ house. His siblings and grandparents were there, in addition to Marta’s family. During a game of Pictionary, it was Seth’s turn to draw and Marta’s turn to guess.
“I wasn’t able to figure it out,” Marta recalls. “I happened to look up and everyone’s phones were out – weird – but I started to guess again. He drew a hand, a circle, a ring… ‘Oh! It’s a ring!’”
The guess was correct, and both families cheered.
“I looked back to Seth and he was down on one knee, with a box in his hand and a gorgeous sapphire ring inside it,” Marta says. They both teared up as she accepted his proposal.
The couple were married on Sept. 23, 2017, at Byron Forest Preserve, Byron, Ill. Their ceremony was held under two trees that formed a natural arch on the front lawn of Byron Forest Preserve, and their reception was held at the Jarrett Prairie Center in the newly renovated museum and on the 2,600-square-foot wrap-around deck that overlooks 400 acres of prairie.
“The Jarrett Prairie Center was great for the reception because it offered indoor and outdoor spaces,” Marta says. “Our guests could go inside to cool down and get drinks, while the deck offered fresh air and picturesque views of the prairie.”
To make things even better, the sun was setting during their first dance as a married couple.
“The Byron Forest Preserve staff were always available to answer questions and go over all of the details,” Marta says. “Just step outside on the deck and take in that wonderful view. You’ll be sold right away.” - LG
Alanna Cieslek knew what she wanted, so she went after it.
Instead of waiting for John Kveton of Berwyn, Ill., to ask her out, Alanna, of Palatine, Ill., took the bull by the horns and asked John on a date when they were both students at the University of Illinois-Springfield.
“We met through the dodgeball club and through mutual friends,” Alanna says. “John was president of the club, which caught my eye, and we’re both very athletic. I knew he was special before we even started dating. I’m so glad I listened to my intuition, because once we started dating, all of the pieces seemed to fall into place.”
After the couple dated for four years, Alanna knew she was ready to marry John. But it took John an additional three years to pop the question. He proposed when the couple visited Portland, Ore., in the summer of 2017.
The pair had rented a house whose backyard garden had a beautiful archway. That first night in town, John asked Alanna if she wanted to get some snacks. She agreed, and John exited the room. Alanna went to the car, thinking he was there. The car was empty, so she went looking for him.
“I saw a glimpse of him in the garden, and I went over there thinking, ‘What the heck is he doing?’” she says. “He took my hand, and we went over to the bridge, and he proposed. ”
When it came time to select a wedding venue, the couple knew Cliffbreakers, in Rockford, was the right place.
“Cliffbreakers overlooks the scenic Rock River, which is very unique, and it has an outside porch so guests can go outside and mingle,” Alanna says. “Cliffbreakers also has a ton of new, recent renovations, so much of it is brand-new.”
Now that the facility’s multimillion-dollar face-lift is complete, director of catering Sarah Buscemi and the rest of the team are welcoming brides back to the classic venue.
“It’s a new era of classic elegance,” she says.
Equipped to host both a wedding ceremony and a reception, Cliffbreakers averages 25 to 30 weddings a year. Accordingly, Buscemi suggests couples book their weddings at least six months in advance. Not only can couples enjoy their wedding celebration here, but their guests can stay overnight at the adjacent Riverview Inn & Suites.
“We have a river view that can’t be beat,” Buscemi says. “All of our function rooms include access to the riverview deck, so all of our guests can enjoy a beautiful sunset, some gorgeous foliage and the calming flow of the Rock River below. It’s a truly magical setting.”
The couple were married on June 23, 2018, making them the first couple to celebrate a wedding in the renovated venue.
“I felt very honored for our wedding to be the first one since the new renovations,” Alanna says. “The staff was incredibly helpful throughout the planning process and very flexible.”
Alanna says she’s received rave reviews from her guests.
“People came up to me several times near the end of our reception, telling me that this was one of the best weddings they’ve been to,” she says.
She credits the staff at Cliffbreakers for turning her wedding dreams into a reality.
“It was the best day of our lives,” she says. “Very memorable, very smooth and no problems.” - JP
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
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.”
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
Grant Magnuson and Katie Harkness were students at Western Illinois University in 2010 when they started dating. Everything was going well until life got in the way.
Grant, who grew up in Belvidere, graduated and began student teaching and living in Chicago. They continued dating while Katie, a North Aurora, Ill., native, was a senior at WIU, but eventually, they went their separate ways.
When Katie graduated, she took on a teaching job in North Carolina. After about a year, Katie moved back to Illinois, where Grant was waiting.
“I went to lunch with him and we’ve been inseparable ever since,” Katie says. “A few months later, I moved to Chicago. Grant and I started dating again, and I fell so in love with him. He brings out the best in me and he makes me a better person.”
When it came time to propose in August 2017, Grant decided to pop the question on the deck of his future mother-in-law, Karen.
“I wanted to do it there because I know Karen’s house is Katie’s favorite place to be,” Grant says.
One of Katie’s friends took her shopping while Grant set up. Katie thought her mom had been out of town, but she was actually helping to get things ready.
Later that night, Katie had planned to have dinner with Grant and some friends, but along the way, Grant said they should swing by her mother’s place to drop off their dog, Harry.
“We walked into Karen’s and went to the back patio,” Grant says. “Then, I got down on one knee and asked the most nerve-wracking thing: ‘Will you marry me?’ Kate was speechless, and the question took her breath away, but she said yes.”
The couple decided to get married at Prairie Street Brewing Co., in Rockford, because the moment they walked into the venue, Katie knew it was true to them.
“The exposed brick and openness made us fall in love with the venue,” she says. “It was an industrial chic vibe that we were both drawn to and fell in love with. The fact that it was a brewery made it more special and more of our own.”
The couple were married on July 6, 2018. They locked down the wedding venue 11 months prior.
Set along the banks of the Rock River, Prairie Street Brewhouse offers scenic views of downtown Rockford and an old, industrial feel. The century-old building creates a scenic backdrop for the special day.
Katie gives credit to the staff at Prairie Street for making the celebration run smoothly.
“They helped make my dream wedding by being so flexible and willing to try any idea I had,” Katie says. “Even on rehearsal day, I wanted to try entering through different doors than originally planned, and they went with it and it worked seamlessly. Honestly, anything I wanted or just wanted to try, they would somehow just make it work.”
Katie looks back on her wedding day with happiness, knowing the day was a true celebration of her and Grant’s love.
“We truly had the most perfect day at the most perfect venue,” she says. “Our wedding was on a beautiful, summer day where everyone could enjoy Prairie Street’s own beers, food and river views on the dock. It made our wedding stand out against other weddings, which was so special.” - JP
Couples who get married at the Rockford Woman’s Club, in Rockford, could be following in the same footsteps as their parents and even their grandparents.
The Rockford Woman’s Club building turns a century old this year, and the historical, majestic venue in downtown Rockford has held weddings since the very beginning.
“I’ve had granddaughters get married here, and their grandparents and their parents have also held their wedding receptions here,” says Nancy Whitlock, president of the Rockford Woman’s Club.
More than a gathering place, The Rockford Woman’s Club is an organization of women who seek to promote and encourage philanthropy, civic and cultural improvement and education in the Rockford area. Preserving their building is an ongoing priority.
You’ll find the woman’s club at work supporting and offering opportunities for women of all ages to grow and serve within the community, Whitlock says.
The club, which has served our region for more than 120 years, owns the venue at 323 Park Ave., located along the Cultural Corridor, in Rockford. The facility is available to the public for a wide variety of special events, including weddings, bridal and baby showers, private parties, seminars and business meetings.
Tucked inside the building is The Rockford Theater, an 800-seat auditorium. For larger gatherings, the theater lobby can be expanded.
When it comes to weddings, the Rockford Woman’s Club is convenient because it can accommodate many needs in numerous spaces.
Dates fill up quickly, so Whitlock recommends booking a wedding reception at least a year in advance.
Whitlock says that, while there have been plenty of upgrades through the years, the character and charm of this building are still intact, making it a perfect place to host a wedding and reception.
“You can enjoy your dinner and toasts downstairs, and everyone can come upstairs to the reception area,” Whitlock says. “The band or DJ may be set up in the gallery, and guests can dance the night away.”
The upper level of Rockford Woman’s Club has a large space for music and dancing inside the Belle Keith Art Gallery. The sunroom off the gallery offers a backdrop for photos or a quiet place to relax. A circular balcony just outside the gallery doors could also serve as the perfect place for a bouquet or garter toss.
Guests use a grand staircase as they head downstairs to the elegant banquet facility. A beautiful, ornate, wooden bar area is located right off the main dining room.
Decorating the wedding venue is one thing brides don’t have to worry about, because the building is beautiful just the way it is, Whitlock says.
“You’re welcomed to add flowers and add your special touches, but the club stands on its own as well,” she says. “You don’t have to work too hard to make it look pretty, because it’s already pretty.” - JP
Four years ago, Rockford native Bretta (Grumley) Hutchinson packed her belongings, leaving Chicago for a new life in Boston.
That bold move led to the 2007 Boylan High graduate meeting the man of her dreams.
“I lived in Chicago for six years and wanted a big change,” says Bretta, a museum educator for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. “I was looking for a smaller city to live in. I roomed with three other women, including Kate, who became one of my best friends. After about six months, the first night we went out in South Boston I met John.”
John is a manager of commercial sales engineering for a Boston company. The pair first met at a local bar and hit it off. A week later, Bretta and John went on their first date: dinner at a Scottish restaurant/tavern called The Haven.
When John finally popped the question, the couple decided to get married back in the Midwest. They looked in Chicago but found most venues to be too costly. Instead, they opted for Bretta’s hometown of Rockford, where they got married on the rooftop patio at The Standard, in downtown Rockford, on June 10, 2017.
“We went to the first wedding there in October 2016, but the rooftop wasn’t open yet,” Bretta says. “We knew Brent Hughes and his wife, Betsy, who were building The Standard, but we didn’t know if it would be completed in time. Fortunately, it was.”
Bretta and John appreciated the aesthetics The Standard offered for both the wedding ceremony and the reception. After the nuptials were finished, the 130 guests headed to the second floor where a spacious dining hall is located. The food is prepared by Chef Paul Sletten, who owns several downtown restaurants.
“The Standard has space you can do anything with,” says Bretta. “It has an industrial look with exposed brick and open windows that let plenty of light in. The rooftop was great, but it was the light, space and blank canvas that did it for me.
And the skyline and the river also created a pretty background atmosphere.”
The couple hired the Brian Kinney Band, from Minneapolis, who just happened to play at her brother’s wedding 11 years before. But Bretta says she couldn’t have done all the planning without help. “My advice to couples is to hire an event planner who can stay all night,” she says. “It’s nice to have someone who can organize the event and help make things go smoothly.”
These days, the couple is home in Boston. They stay busy with their new dog, Squirt, a German Shepard/Corgi mix, and also explore new restaurants, hike and attend an occasional Red Sox or Bruins game.
“I knew it was a little risky moving to Boston, where I didn’t know anyone,” she says. “But it all worked out better than I could imagine.” - PAA
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.”
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