Goldmoor Inn, Galena (Fallon’s Portraits photos)

Dream Destinations for Your Big Day

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 spectacular options. Here, we highlight some of our favorites, and share the experiences of couples who recently said “I do.”

Fishermen's Inn (Timothy Whaley Photographic Artists photo)
Fishermen’s Inn (Timothy Whaley Photographic Artists photo)

Engaged on Ice

Fishermen’s Inn, Elburn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn more at

Ceremony/Reception: Fishermen’s Inn, Elburn
Ceremony Musicians: Moeller Music, Chicago Area
Catering: Fishermen’s Inn, Elburn
DJ: Music By Design, St. Charles, Schaumburg, Chicago
Photographer: David and Stephanie Weddings, Lee, Ill.
Flowers: Kio Kreations, Naperville
Bride’s Gown: Martellen’s Bridal, Lemont
Transportation: Spare Wheels Transportation, West Chicago
Videographer: Amor in Motion, Chicago Area

The Stonegate Conference & Banquet Centre, Hoffman Estates (
The Stonegate Conference & Banquet Centre, Hoffman Estates (

In Perfect Taste

The Stonegate Conference & Banquet Centre, Hoffman Estates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn more at

Ceremony: Our Lady of the Wayside Catholic Church, Arlington Heights
Reception/Catering: The Stonegate Conference & Banquet Centre, Hoffman Estates
Bride’s Gown: Doris Bridal, Highwood
Rings: Mitchell’s Jewelers, Arlington Heights
Photographer: Noelle Adams Photography, Chicago
Videographer: Four Eye Productions, Arlington Heights
Music: Dance Party DJ, Chicago; & Big Al Wetzel Band, Lake Geneva
Floral: Yanni Design Studios, Wheeling
Limo: M&M Limousine Services, Des Plaines

Beloit Club, Beloit, Wis. (TLC Photography photo)
Beloit Club, Beloit, Wis. (TLC Photography photo)

Cruisin’ into Love

Beloit Club, Beloit

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

In fact, Meghan actually found the ring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The couple have received many compliments from their 250 guests about the venue and the food. The grilled cheese sandwiches served at 10:30 p.m. were especially a hit after a few hours of dancing.
The Gronaus left for their honeymoon the day after their wedding: a TransAtlantic cruise to London, Paris, Venice and Rome.

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

Reception/Catering: Beloit Club, Beloit, Wis.
Ceremony: First Congregational Church, Beloit, Wis.
Music/DJ: Paul Siksna with G.K. Jams
Photographer: TLC Photography, South Beloit, Ill.
Flowers: Beloit Floral, Beloit, Wis.
Bride’s Gown: Veils and Tails, Clinton, Wis.
Limo: Magical Night Limo, Oconomowoc, Wis.

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

My Secret Crush

Acquaviva Winery, Maple Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn more at

Ceremony: Salem Lutheran Church, Sandwich
Reception: Acquaviva Winery, Maple Park
Catering: Sweet Dreams Desserts, Sycamore
Music/DJ: True Sounds Entertainment, Aurora
Photographer: Pulse Photography & Design, Yorkville
Flowers: Sandwich Floral, Sandwich
Bride’s Gown: The Crystal Bride, Geneva
Limo: Emperor Limousine, Addison
Videographer: Red Cap Productions, Chicago

Edgewater Hotel, Madison, Wis. (Chelsea Matson Photography photos)
Edgewater Hotel, Madison, Wis. (Chelsea Matson Photography photos)

Wet & Wild Romance

The Edgewater, Madison, Wis.

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

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

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

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

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

The personal, private proposal was everything Mary wanted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn more at

Ceremony/Reception: The Edgewater, Madison, Wis.
Catering: The Edgewater and Chocolaterian, Madison, Wis.
Music/DJ/Photo Booth: DJ Magic: Andrew Accola, Madison, Wis.
Photographer: Chelsea Matson Photography, Milwaukee
Flowers: KP Designs: Kirstie Pence, Madison, Wis.
Limo: Mad City Party Bus, Madison, Wis.

Creek Bend Nature Center (Chrystl Roberg Photography photos)
Creek Bend Nature Center (Chrystl Roberg Photography photos)

Sparks Fly

Creek Bend Nature Center, St. Charles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn more at

Ceremony/Reception: Creek Bend Nature Center, St. Charles
Catering: Porkchop, Chicago; La Cocinita, Evanston; Grill Chasers, Schaumburg
Cake: Sweet Dreams Desserts, Sycamore
Bride’s Gown: Wolsfelt’s Bridal, Aurora
Photographer: Chrystl Roberge Photography, Geneva
Rental Service: Violet and Pearl Vintage Rentals, Homer Glen
Band: Junkyard Groove, Naperville
Shuttle Service: Spare Wheels Transportation, West Chicago

Goldmoor Inn, Galena (Fallon’s Portraits photos)
Goldmoor Inn, Galena (Fallon’s Portraits photos)

A Fairy Tale Wedding

Goldmoor Inn, Galena

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

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

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

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

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

When Wade did, she was elated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn more at

Ceremony/Reception: Goldmoor Inn, Galena
Catering: Goldmoor Inn, Galena
Photographer: Fallon’s Portraits | Design, Galena
Bride’s Gown: David’s Bridal

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

A Whole New World

Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, St. Charles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceremony/Reception: Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, St. Charles
Catering: Sweet Dreams Desserts & Catering, Sycamore
Photographer: Ashley Biess – Artistrie Co., Chicago
Music/DJ: A Class Act DJ Service
Bride’s Gown: Crystal Bride, Geneva
Limo: Spare Wheels Transportation, West Chicago
Photobooth: Best Booth Plus, Wheaton
Ceremony Chairs/Dance Floor/Cocktail Tables: Blue Peak Tents, West Chicago

Starved Rock Lodge, Utica, Ill. (Kathy & Stephanie Casstevens photos)
Starved Rock Lodge, Utica, Ill. (Kathy & Stephanie Casstevens photos)

Retreat to Nature

Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center, Utica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn more at

Ceremony, Reception, Catering: Starved Rock Lodge, Utica
Music/DJ: Equipment from Starved Rock Lodge
Photographer: Kathy Casstevens and Stephanie Casstevens, Starved Rock Lodge
Bride’s Gown: House of Brides, Schaumburg
Dress Alterations: Rina’s Alterations & Fashions, Skokie

Ironworks Hotel, Beloit (Julie and Jim Barker photos)
Ironworks Hotel, Beloit (Julie and Jim Barker photos)

A Friendship Foundation

Ironworks Hotel, Beloit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ceremony: Central Christian Church, Beloit, Wis.
Reception: Ironworks Hotel, Beloit, Wis.
Catering: Merrill & Houston’s Steak Joint, Beloit, Wis.
Cupcakes: Amy’s Cakes, Janesville, Wis.
Music/DJ: Dennis Seeley, Roscoe
Photographer: Julie and Jim Barker, Caledonia
Flowers: Beloit Floral, Beloit, Wis.
Bride’s Gown: Great Hang-Ups, Rockford
Dress Alterations: Bessie’s Creative Sewing, Beloit, Wis.

Franchesco's Ristorante, Rockford (Annie Steele Photography photos)
Franchesco’s Ristorante, Rockford (Annie Steele Photography photos)

Come Rain or Shine

Franchesco’s Ristorante, Rockford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of Kara’s favorite touches was a digital montage of family photos that Aaron put together himself, easily accommodated by Franchesco’s AV department. “It’s something we can keep forever,” she says.
One of the keys to a great event is employing a high ratio of servers per guest, says Franchesco’s owner Benny Salamone, who hosts 50 to 60 weddings each year.

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

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

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

Learn more at

Ceremony/Dinner/Cake: Franchesco’s Ristorante, Rockford
Gown: Sara Grace Co., Rockford
Flowers: Crimson Ridge, Rockford
Photography: Annie Steele Photography, Chicago
Music/DJ: Paul Singh
Hair/Makeup: WM DaySpa, Rockford

Maxson Riverboat and Riverside Restaurant, Oregon (Amy’s Cakes photos)
Maxson Riverboat and Riverside Restaurant, Oregon (Amy’s Cakes photos)

Master Planners

Maxson Riverboat and Riverside Restaurant, Oregon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn more at

Ceremony: Northwest Territory Historic Center, Dixon
Catering/Reception: Maxson Riverboat and Riverside Restaurant, Oregon
Music/DJ: Illusion Audio, Polo
Photographer: Erica Pospeshil Photography, Dixon
Flowers: Country Floral, Polo
Bride’s Gown: Hope’s Bridal Boutique, Davenport, Iowa
Cake: Aurelio’s Bake Shop, Sterling
Decorator: Something Barrowed, Something Blue, Rochelle

Giovanni's Restaurant & Convention Center, Rockford (Kane Photography photos)
Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center, Rockford (Kane Photography photos)

A Mother’s Touch

Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center, Rockford

Sydney Cassel’s stubborn nature caused a snag in Peter Holmgren’s original proposal plan.

One night in late February 2014, he had organized an elaborate dinner out, but Sydney was steadfast on staying home and ordering in. Only her father knew of Peter’s plan, as he had found out a few weeks prior when Peter sought his blessing. Because Sydney is notoriously hard to surprise, Peter scrambled to keep his secret. He decided instead to propose in their apartment that night.

“Needless to say, I was more than willing to go out to a nice dinner after the proposal,” says Sydney.

As if to make up for that skipped meal out, the couple’s search for a reception venue brought them right to Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center in Rockford, which is home to a fine dining restaurant and the more casual Alchemy and Big Al’s Bar. With stunning ballrooms and a dedicated banquet staff, Giovanni’s could more than accommodate the couple’s 443 guests while offering close proximity to area hotels, modern decor, and, of course, handmade meals cooked in-house. The venue typically hosts 75 to 100 weddings each year and can accommodate up to 1,000 guests for receptions, rehearsals and showers.

Through Giovanni’s preferred vendors, Sydney and Peter easily chose the finishing details for their big day. For the most part, the couple followed staff suggestions for everything from the florist to the cake.

“The people at Giovanni’s were really what sold us on their venue,” she says. “They were happy to work with us and were just as excited as we were to be a part of our big day.”

The couple were married on Valentine’s Day 2015, on a day when temperatures with wind chill were in the negative double digits. But inside Giovanni’s grand ballroom, the weather couldn’t stop a perfect reception.

“All of our vendors were not only amazing by themselves, but they really were a cohesive group,” says Sydney. “They worked together beautifully and took care of everything. I honestly had absolutely no worries or concerns leading up to the event. Then the day of the wedding, of course, is one big, beautiful blur.”

But what made their wedding special was the important role of family. Many loved ones traveled to share the day with them, and the couple received many compliments.

“I credit most of the planning and ideas to my mom,” says Sydney. “We have eerily similar tastes, which made it easy for us to work together to make decisions. My mom is quite the party planner, and she really made the day what it was. I couldn’t have done it without her.”

In fact, it was their mothers, good friends themselves, who first introduced Peter and Sydney when they were children. But because they’re six years apart in age, the Rockford natives didn’t form a romantic connection until they were adults.

At the ceremony, Peter’s mother also played a significant role. The judge pronounced them as man and wife. It made the ceremony truly special, says Sydney.

Ceremony: Westminster Presbyterian Church, Rockford
Reception: Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center, Rockford
Photographers: Kane Photography, Rockford
Florist: Event Floral, Loves Park
DJ/Lighting/Photobooth: Luxe Productions, Loves Park
Cake: By the Dozen, Machesney Park

Oscar Swan Country Inn, Geneva (photo provided)
Oscar Swan Country Inn, Geneva (photo provided)

A Big Celebration

Oscar Swan Country Inn, Geneva & Galena

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.

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