Wedding Stories 2023: A Bride’s Inside Guide

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

(Pulse Photography & Design photo)

Acquaviva Winery | Maple Park, Ill.

Kelly Clayton had a great big 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 typically hosts up to 100 weddings per year, Joe and Shelly made themselves available to help the couple plan their special day.

“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 her 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 with 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.” –LL

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

(UnPosed Photography photo)

Goldmoor Inn | Galena, Ill.

Hannah Plickebaum knew her boyfriend, Jason, would propose to her, but she didn’t know when or where.

So, when Jason got on one knee and proposed to the girl he met at the University of Iowa in front of her entire family at Christmas, she was blown away.

“I thought he was going to do it in private, because he’s shy and a very private person,” Hannah says. “I also called him a butthead before answering.”

As she searched for a wedding venue, Hannah came across photos of Goldmoor Inn, a luxurious retreat in Galena, Ill. She was hooked from that moment on.

“I saw the pictures online and I fell in love almost immediately,” she says. “After meeting Birgit [Radin, co-owner of The Goldmoor], I didn’t even want to look at other venues. She was amazing and the property was amazing. I was practically singing on the car ride home because I was so excited.”

To make sure they got the date they wanted, Hannah says the couple booked their wedding date about 18 months early.

“We set the date for June 22, 2019, since it was close to my late aunt’s birthday,” Hannah says. “It’s also my sister’s birthday, but she graciously let us share.”

The Goldmoor grounds can accommodate intimate weddings and elopements. Under normal circumstances, the pavilion can hold up to 175 guests, and if it rains, protective siding can be added. A roomy patio situated behind Goldmoor overlooks a wooded area and the Mississippi River, which creates a perfect gathering space for cocktail hour.

A smaller gazebo that fits up to 10 people can be used for elopements, and during the cooler months, Goldmoor can host up to 50 guests for an indoor wedding.

Each spot on the property showcases sunning Galena landscapes that make for a perfect wedding day backdrop.

Hannah says the guests who attended her wedding loved everything about Goldmoor, especially the food.

“They were seriously amazed,” she says. “The property was gorgeous and the food was a hit. Every guest I spoke to was in awe of how perfect the food was.”

One of those guests who also had rave reviews was Hannah’s mother, Sharon Murray.

“Everything was just as my daughter and her husband wanted,” Murray says. “I would highly recommend The Goldmoor Inn to any bride who’s looking for a perfect wedding venue.”

Hannah gives Radin and the staff at The Goldmoor a lot of praise because they made sure the day went according to plan.

“The entire staff asked what we needed and how they could make things better,” Hannah says. “I don’t think they let me worry about a single thing. When I mentioned to Birgit that I was scared of rain, she said, ‘Don’t be,’ in such a way that I was convinced that she’d keep the rain away herself.”
Hannah says getting married at The Goldmoor was worth every penny.

“They provide everything – it’s completely worth it,” she says. – JP

Ceremony, Reception & Catering: Goldmoor Inn, Galena
Music/DJ: The After Party, Guttenberg, Iowa
Photographer: UnPosed Photography, Galena
Flowers: Valley Perennials Florist & Greenhouse, Galena
Bride’s Gown: Zazou’s Bridal Boutique & Tuxedos, Dubuque, Iowa
Hair/Makeup: Tonic Salon & Day Spa, Dubuque, Iowa

(Photos by Felicia photo)

Creek Bend Nature Center | St. Charles, Ill.

Natalie Stewart is pretty sure her marriage to Ryan Stubben was destiny.

“We met because he was a friend of my brother’s,” she says. “But we grew up a town apart and were friends with a lot of the same people, so we’re pretty sure we would have met anyway.”

The couple were together for almost 10 years before Ryan got down on one knee for an emotional proposal.

“It was very casual. We were hanging out on the couch when he did it,” Natalie laughs. “I had already set the wedding date, so he knew he’d have to propose.”

Once the engagement was official, it was time to seek out a venue. That proved to be a simple task. LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve, in St. Charles, was a favorite dog-walking spot for the couple. Inside the preserve is Creek Bend Nature Center, a spot that’s familiar to schoolkids but is also an increasingly popular destination for weddings with a natural backdrop. Individual rooms like the Savanna Room, Prairie Room and Meadow Room are available on their own, or families can reserve the entire facility for a party of up to 175 guests.

“I took one look at the oak trees there and immediately thought, ‘That’s where I want our wedding,’” says Natalie. “So, we made an inquiry and booked the venue.”

For Natalie, the best feature of Creek Bend Nature Center is the flexibility.

“The forest preserve provides the facility and the grounds, but everything else, from the vendors to the decor, was up to us to create,” she says. “I was looking for a venue that would let me use my creativity.”

Natalie was also taken in by the natural beauty of the venue’s surroundings, as well as nearby historic gems like the Durant House Museum and Pioneer Sholes School.

“It’s such a beautiful setting,” she says. “It was wonderful being amongst the trees, with all of that history around us.”

Natalie recommends setting aside time the previous day to load items into the building. That way, wedding planners can hit the ground running on the day of the wedding.

“We took some time the day prior to make sure everything was ready for our big day,” she says. “Having one less thing to worry about the day of really made a difference.”

While Creek Bend Nature Center does not provide additional vendor services, the staff do maintain a list of vendors they’ve worked with in the past. For Natalie, the freedom to work with vendors of her choice played a big role in making everything special.

“I loved that the venue was a blank canvas,” says Natalie. “That’s what I was looking for to design my dream wedding. Creek Bend Nature Center helped me make that dream come true.” –JT

Ceremony & Reception: Creek Bend Nature Center, St. Charles
Catering: BBQ on Wheels, Elgin
Photography: Photos by Felicia, Yorkville
Live Music: The Midnight Special Band, St. Charles
Bartending: 11th Hour Bartending, Aurora
Coffee: Fresh Ground, Geneva
Flowers: The Local Petaler, St. Charles
Balloons: Confetti Wish, St. Charles
Tent: Midwest Tents & Events, DeKalb

(Nat Finely Photography photo)

Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa | Galena, Ill.

Sierra Hoppman met Alec Metz through mutual friends.

“We began hanging out as friends, then started dating about a year and a half later,” she says. “We’ve been together ever since.”

After a few years, it became clear that marriage was the next step. But Alec wanted to keep Sierra on her toes.

“He always said that he was going to do it when it was least expected,” she laughs. “He definitely did.”

On Thanksgiving Day in 2021, Alec contacted Sierra’s family members, so they could be present when he popped the question. The biggest challenge was getting her father there. As an executive chef, one of his busiest days is Thanksgiving.

“Eventually my sister called my dad, and he rushed over,” Sierra says. “All of my family was there.”
When it came to choosing a venue, the choice was easy. The place where Sierra’s father was executive chef happened to be Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa, in Galena.

“He’s worked there since he was 16,” says Sierra. “With all the events Eagle Ridge has, like the Great Galena Balloon Race and the rodeo, I’ve been there quite a few times.”

Nestled amongst 6,800 acres in the breathtaking Galena Territory of northwest Illinois, the luxurious resort and spa is known and loved for hosting destination weddings, with four venues to choose from. While the resort is also known for its elegant food, Sierra’s dad chose to take a day off to celebrate his daughter’s wedding.

“He did make pizza the night before for our rehearsal dinner,” says Sierra. “He prepped some of the food for our wedding dinner, but they made sure he took the night off.”

Sierra and Alec’s wedding on June 3, 2023 brought together 250 loved ones. The ceremony on the resort’s stunning Point Patio was followed by a cocktail hour before a reception in the Eagle Ballroom.

Sierra recommends contacting Eagle Ridge as soon as you have a date in mind.

“We knew we wanted to have the wedding there, so we contacted them right away,” she says. “We told them the date we had in mind but also said we’d be flexible.”

For Sierra, the breathtaking views and, of course, the food made Eagle Ridge an even more special place for her special day. She was also happy to have overnight accommodations that went beyond hotel suites.

“We rented three houses that weekend for out-of-town families,” she said. “They were nice and big and were all right next door to each other. It brought everyone together.”

For any couples considering Eagle Ridge, Sierra recommends leaning on the experience of Eagle Ridge’s wedding team, led by Maggie Truppa.

“Don’t sweat the little things,” she says. “Everyone was great, especially Maggie.”

For Sierra and Alec, Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa provided everything they needed to make their wedding dreams come true. It also allowed them to continue what has become a family tradition.

“My parents were married there as well,” Sierra says. –JT

Ceremony, Reception & Catering: Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa, Galena
Photographer: Nat Finley Photography, Dubuque
Hair: Emily Schober and Tiffany Heitkamp, Dubuque
Makeup: Lucy Rahe and Danielle Smethers, Dubuque
Music/DJ: Press Play Entertainment DJ & Photobooth, Dubuque
Flowers: Hydrangea Bloom, Dubuque
Dress: Zazou’s Bridal Boutique, Dubuque
Tuxes: Gordon’s Toggery, Dubuque
Cake: Sprinkled Confections, Holy Cross, Iowa
Gelato Cart: Elle & Beck’s, Galena
Videographer: Ivory and Oak Films, Peoria, Ill.

(McConville Studio photo)

Starved Rock Lodge | Oglesby, Ill.

Heather Brunner and Conor Malaney met in October 2021 through the online dating platform Hinge. Their connection was instantaneous and led them to embark on an accelerated journey toward marriage.

“It was one of those things where I knew quickly, after being in the dating pool for a long time,” says Conor. “You find somebody you click with and hold onto it, so things moved quickly for us.”

Conor, a native of northwest Wisconsin, contemplated how to make a memorable proposal. At first, he considered doing it when the couple climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 2022. Instead, he chose a more intimate setting: at home, shortly after a vacation to Madeline Island, Wis.

On a special date night, Conor surprised his soon-to-be bride with flowers and candles. Heather, a Buffalo Grove native, couldn’t help but say yes.

When it came time to choose a wedding venue, the couple wanted someplace where family and friends could join in the celebration without traveling too far. Starved Rock Lodge, nestled inside the popular state park in Oglesby, caught their attention.

With numerous settings for large or small outdoor weddings and a Great Hall for receptions and rainouts, the Lodge offered the rustic charm, natural elegance and a complete package – including overnight accommodations, catering and trolley transportation – that appealed to the active couple. They discovered it, naturally, on a hike with Conor’s cousin.

“It’s sort of this hidden gem in Illinois,” says Heather. “There’s some nice hiking a little further south, but if you want to be a part of the outdoors, I think Starved Rock is an unbeatable venue.”

Jenny Roulston, the couple’s dedicated event coordinator at Starved Rock Lodge, proved invaluable in making their dreams a reality. From the initial meeting to the final coordination, Roulston’s expertise and her extensive list of preferred vendors made the planning process streamlined and stress-free, say Heather and Conor.

The couple’s 200 guests were enamored with the venue and its surrounding beauty when Heather and Conor were married on May 21, 2023, on a charming patio overlooking Starved Rock. At the reception inside, the couple’s vision for food stations and an extended cocktail hour came to life. The couple received countless compliments from friends and family.

“All night we kept hearing comments like, ‘I’m so glad you picked this place. It’s so you,’” says Conor. “It turned out everyone had a great time.” –SB

Ceremony, Reception and Catering: Starved Rock Lodge, Oglesby
Music/DJ: Guys on the Radio / Kevin Kramer Trio, Spring Valley
Photographer: McConville Studio, Peru
Flowers: Blythe Flowers, Ottawa
Brides Gown: David’s Bridal, Chicago
Groom’s Suit: Indochino, Chicago

(Matt Warren Photography photo)

Oscar Swan Country Inn | Geneva, Ill.

Blythe Todd and Chris Struck first connected on the dating app Hinge. Their timing was impeccable, because weeks later, in March 2020, the world went into lockdown. Amidst the uncertainty, romance blossomed.

“It was a great way to get to know each other, even though it was very unconventional,” says Blythe. “We figured if we could get through this – the most mundane parts of life where the most exciting thing to do was to go to the grocery store because you couldn’t go anywhere else – then we’re probably in a good spot.”

By September 2022, Chris was ready to propose. The Crystal Lake native took Blythe, a native of Wheaton, to the Illinois Prairie Path at Lincoln Marsh nature preserve in Wheaton, which had been a backdrop throughout their romance. The couple passed a pond adorned with flowers secretly arranged by Blythe’s younger sister.

“We walked down to the dock and he said, ‘Today is the most special day and here’s why,’ and he proposed,” recalls Blythe. “It really was a total surprise, and it was just beautiful.”

Blythe envisioned a modern and minimalist setting for their wedding, but she wasn’t satisfied with the options she saw. A church friend recommended Oscar Swan Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in Geneva that hosts weddings year-round in and around its mansion and 8-acre grounds. The expansive property, lush greenery, on-site catering, flexible options and hands-on owner, Nina Heymann, made it an easy decision.

In the company of 160 friends and family, the couple were married on May 27, 2023. They took full advantage of the inn’s every space, from an outdoor ceremony and canopy-style reception tent to indoor spaces, including a restored barn dating to the early 1900s. Blythe praises Heymann for her accommodating manner and helpfulness in bringing the couple’s vision to life.

“I had a lot of people say it was the most beautiful wedding they had ever been to,” says Blythe. “Everyone kept using the word ‘elegant.’” –SB