Forest Hills Country Club (Palette of Light photos)

Wedding Stories: Dreamy Wedding Backdrops

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.”

Forest Hills Country Club (Palette of Light photos)
Forest Hills Country Club (Palette of Light photos)

The Perfect Wedding: Forest Hills Country Club, Rockford

The more time Jake Gerasch spent with his future wife, Michelle Girard, the more he began to change.
“I was happier, I worked harder in school and my friends and family loved her,” says Jake, who grew up in Cudahy, Wis., and met Michelle in college. “She makes me a better person and the more I realized it, the more I started saving for a ring.”
That ring was put to good use on a hot and steamy July day in 2015, when Jake proposed to Michelle by the pond outside of Starlight Theater in Rockford. Her sister Kate, who is also her best friend, and Kate’s fiance, Andrew, were looking on.
“Jake got down on one knee and of course I said ‘yes,’” Michelle says. “It was absolutely perfect. He made sure I dressed up and had my best friend/sister there, which meant the world to me. He picked out the ring on his own and I couldn’t have imagined anything better.”
When it came time to pick a wedding venue to tie the knot, Forest Hills Country Club had everything the couple wanted and more.
“The hall and the grounds are beautiful, and the menu options were exactly what we were looking for,” Jake says. “Our package included a cocktail hour with hors d’oeurves, an amazing dinner, cake cutting and plating, bar service, linens, uplighting and we were guaranteed as a private event.”
Forest Hills wedding receptions include a ballroom with seating for up to 280 guests, with unobstructed views, complementary use of all in-house audio and visual equipment, and an attached cocktail & hors d’oeurves reception room throughout the night.
The ballroom’s drapery along the ceiling, with lights shimmering down, creates a beautiful atmosphere.
“Overall, the venue itself was perfect,” says Michelle, a Rockford native. “The stunning drapery and uplighting were included, and we were granted access to the impeccably kept grounds for pictures. The event staff was always so prompt with getting back to us, and they were extremely easy to work with.”
Things were so organized and elegant at Forest Hills Country Club that the couple’s guests took notice.
“We have heard nothing but compliments from family and friends about the staff, the food and the beautiful ballroom,” Michelle says.
The couple had to plan their wedding 18 months in advance to lock in a June 24, 2017, wedding date at Forest Hills Country Club.
“We were engaged for two years, which allowed us to get some of the big details out of the way early,” Michelle says. “Even booking that early, two other weekends in June had already been booked. The booking process was a piece of cake, and the staff answered all of our questions promptly.”
The couple appreciated how helpful and professional the Forest Hills Country Club team was during the planning process.
“We cannot say enough good things about Chris Magdziarz, banquet manager, and the staff that worked so hard to make our day go perfectly,” Michelle says. “And if you have any debate over booking with Forest Hills, forget about it because you won’t be disappointed.” – JP
Learn more at
Ceremony: Trinity Lutheran Church, Rockford
Reception/Catering: Forest Hills Country Club, Rockford
Music/DJ: Hits DJ Service, Rockford
Photographer: Palette of Light, Rockford
Flowers: Event Floral, Loves Park, Ill.
Bride’s Gown: Stella York bought at Brandi’s Bridal Galleriea, Etc., New Glarus, Wis.

Burpee Museum of Natural History (AJ Kane Photography photos)
Burpee Museum of Natural History (AJ Kane Photography photos)

It’s Love, No Bones About It: Burpee Museum of Natural History, Rockford

Paul and Lisa Dailing prefer to make their own traditions, and that’s exactly what they did when planning their wedding.
The venues they saw in the suburbs struck them as dull. What they liked in Chicago wasn’t affordable.
Somewhere in the couple’s searching, friends and family started mentioning Burpee Museum of Natural History, located in Paul’s hometown of Rockford. The museum is well-known for its rich collection, which includes one of the world’s most complete juvenile Tyrannosaurus rexes.
What the couple were about to discover is that Burpee has also become a popular location to host wedding ceremonies and receptions, with several settings including a 400-seat outdoor courtyard and a Riverview Room & Terrace that overlooks the Rock River.
Paul remembered visiting the museum as a kid and volunteering there as a student.
“Never did I think I’d get married there,” he says. “Our guests really enjoyed taking their drinks around the museum during the cocktail hour.”
Paul met Lisa online and set a first date with the Lincolnshire native in early 2015. The magazine editor and school teacher quickly realized they’d found their match. A proposal came quickly.
“I was waiting in her apartment for her to return home from work,” Paul recalls. “We were planning to go to a park and take some sandwiches, just to have a picnic, and I was going to propose there. I was looking in the mirror and realized that I looked as nervous as I felt. I just thought, ‘I don’t have the poker face for this.’ So I proposed right there.”
As they planned their wedding, the couple made several choices to buck tradition in their own unique way. Instead of a formal wedding dress, Lisa bought a lacy white dress and had a friend make her veil. Lisa’s father, a Cook County judge, led the ceremony.
In many ways, Burpee Museum played perfectly to the couple’s personal style.
“Lisa loved the back courtyard area,” says Paul. “She likes to say she wanted it for the riverwalk and I wanted it for the dinosaurs – which I think is sort of true.”
They also found an important ally in Ciel Rheingans, who joined the Burpee team midway through Paul and Lisa’s yearlong engagement. Paul credits Ciel with being detail-oriented and quick to respond.
Paul and Lisa were married in Burpee’s outdoor amphitheater on June 24, 2017. Their 120 guests enjoyed a cocktail hour while touring the museum and had fun collecting the copper spray-painted dinosaurs Lisa used for placeholders.
“Use the space, and incorporate it into your planning,” says Paul. “One thing we heard about was that, if you had kids (and we didn’t), you could have a scavenger hunt around the museum.”
Reflecting on his own wedding, Paul offers just one tip for couples planning their own celebration at Burpee.
“Let the venue speak for itself.” – CL
Learn more at
Ceremony/Reception: Burpee Museum of Natural History, Rockford
Photography: AJ Kane Photography, Chicago
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Starved Rock Lodge, Utica (Kathy Casstevens and Stephanie Casstevens, Starved Rock Lodge)
Starved Rock Lodge, Utica (Kathy Casstevens and Stephanie Casstevens, Starved Rock Lodge)

A Match Made Online: Starved Rock Lodge, Utica

Things really clicked for Karen Ramos and Matt Kiep – in more ways than one.
The busy young professionals each decided to test their luck by finding love online. Near the end of 2013, they’d made a connection.
By February 2014, they decided to meet for a casual lunch at Colonial Café, in St. Charles.
“When we met, things just seemed to click,” says Karen, who was born and raised in the Philippines. “It’s like we’ve known each other forever, and we were so comfortable with each other. I think that effortless connection is what really attracted us to each other.”
In August 2015, Matt, originally from Batavia, arranged for a photographer to do a photoshoot of Karen in Wheaton’s Cantigny Park. She had always wanted professional portraits of herself.
What Karen didn’t know, but Matt and the photographer did, was that a spot had been arranged for Matt to propose. When he did, Karen said yes, without hesitation.
“Both families knew it was happening that day, and had been waiting for the good news,” Karen says.
When it came time to find a wedding venue, the couple knew they wanted to get married outdoors, in a place surrounded by nature. With hiking trails, large canyons and many outdoor activities, Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center, in Utica, seemed an ideal location for a wedding. Starved Rock also has several preferred vendors who help to make wedding planning easy.
“We came and visited, and it was love at first sight,” Karen says. “The same day of our visit, we put a hold on our wedding date and started the process.”
The site was booked in November 2015 for a wedding on June 2, 2017.
Since Starved Rock is a destination location, lodge staff offered a host of wedding services for the couple, including a rehearsal dinner, rehearsal breakfast and trolley transportation to take photos at the park’s 18 canyons. Typically, space is reserved inside the lodge in case it rains.
During the outdoor ceremony, the couple paid their respects to loved ones who’ve passed away. Matt wore a photo locket of his late mother on his lapel. Karen attached something similar on her bouquet, to commemorate her own loved ones who’ve passed away.
Also celebrating their pregnancy, the couple took a moment during the reception to share a gender reveal with their guests. Stationed in the center of the dance floor was a large yellow box shaped like a large toy block. When Matt and Karen opened the box, a balloon popped out, reading “Baby girl.”
Karen says having their wedding at Starved Rock was everything they expected and more.
“Our guests thoroughly enjoyed our wedding at Starved Rock,” Karen says. “I kept getting compliments about the venue and especially the food and the cupcakes. I was extremely happy and appreciative of the team I worked with.” – JP
Learn more at
Ceremony: St. Laurence Catholic Church, Elgin
Reception/Catering: Starved Rock Lodge, Utica
Music/DJ: Guys on the Radio, Spring Valley
Photographer: Kathy Casstevens and Stephanie Casstevens, Starved Rock Lodge
Flowers: Jen Byers of Flowers by Jen, Aurora
Bride’s Gown: Sophia Tolli from Kathryn’s Bridal, McHenry
Limo: Starved Rock Bella Trolley, Utica
Wedding Planner: Sarah Freeman of Sarah Kathleen Events, Aurora

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

Weddings on the Water: 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. Magnificent, expansive views of Lake Mendota and the City of Madison can be seen from many of the reception and ceremony locations, both indoor and outdoor, not to mention from most of the guest rooms. With incredible scenery as the backdrop, unique indoor and outdoor spaces offer couples the ability to customize their wedding space to accommodate large and small ceremonies and receptions.
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 team also helped to make the planning process less stressful.
The Edgewater offers the artistry and creativity of some of the best chefs and catering professionals in the region. The resort supplies all food and beverage for events taking place, and wedding cakes or desserts may be provided from a licensed bakery.
Exquisite dining options in The Edgewater’s restaurants and private dining rooms serve as the perfect spaces for bridal showers, rehearsal dinners, and pre-/post-wedding brunches. Ideal for groups of 2 to 50, The Statehouse Chef’s Table and The Statehouse Wine Room are just two options on the water, all offering unparalleled views and Modern Midwestern dining experiences.
Some final advice from Mary: “Ask a lot of questions when you’re planning your wedding,”she says. “Because the space is so versatile and there’s so much you can do, it’s helpful to know your options.” – LG
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.
Lakeside Photo: Chelsea Matson Photography, Milwaukee
Ballroom Photo: Tim Fitch Photography, Madison, Wis.
Flowers: KP Designs: Kirstie Pence, Madison, Wis.
Limo: Mad City Party Bus, Madison, Wis.

Prairie Street Brewing Co., Rockford (Erik Anderson Photography photos)
Prairie Street Brewing Co., Rockford (Erik Anderson Photography photos)

All Smiles: Prairie Street Brewing Co., Rockford

For Jeremy Bloom and Michelle Casiello, a simple smile ignited a lifetime of love and happiness.
The couple originally connected online, and when they met in person, they were attracted to each other’s smiles.
“I thought Jeremy had a very sincere smile and he could make me laugh easily,” Michelle says. “Jeremy was also attracted to my eyes and smile.”
The couple rented a condo in suburban Lisle, Ill., for about a year-and-a-half before the owner decided to sell it.
“That meant we had to find a new place to live,” Michelle says. “We decided that instead of renting, we wanted to buy. That decision made us realize we pictured spending the rest of our lives together and we began house hunting.”
On a cold day in December 2015, the day before Jeremy’s birthday, Michelle made dinner reservations in downtown Chicago. Michelle loves Christmas, so the couple also went to the Lincoln Park Zoo to see the Christmas ZooLights.
“After walking around and looking at the lights and animals, he pulled me into a photo booth and proposed as the machine took pictures,” Michelle says. “Of course, I said yes.”
Afterwards, Jeremy hijacked Michelle’s dinner reservations. What was supposed to be Jeremy’s birthday dinner became an engagement dinner, complete with champagne, personalized menus and rose petals.
The couple knew they wanted to get married at a brewery, and they found everything they wanted at Prairie Street Brewing Co., in Rockford. The riverside restaurant and brewery has three rooms available for wedding receptions. The couple locked down their venue in January 2016 and were married on July 1, 2017.
“We looked at a few breweries, and we liked Prairie Street Brewhouse because of its rustic, industrial look and the ability to hold our ceremony on the dock,” Michelle says.
Prairie Street Brewhouse offers scenic river views and an old, industrial feel. The dock where Michelle and Jeremy held their ceremony was a gorgeous setting along the water. The building itself creates a wonderful backdrop to a couple’s perfect day.
Michelle says the staff at Prairie Street Brewhouse was easy to work with.
“They went above and beyond,” she says. “I bought Jeremy a watch as a wedding present, but it was too big. Nicole, (the assistant events manager at Prairie Street Brewhouse) brought in a jeweler to take out some of the links so Jeremy could wear it for the wedding.”
Since the wedding was at a brewery, it’s only right the couple had a beer-themed event.
“We took the beer theme and ran with it,” Michelle says. “The boutonnieres had hops, wheat and beer bottle caps, and our color was green to match fresh hops. Our table numbers were beer tappers and our cake was also decorated in hops and wheat.”
Michelle credits the Prairie Street staff for not only making the day run smoothly, but for inciting positive reviews from their guests.
“Our guests loved the brewhouse,” she says. “They raved about everything, from the food to the service and the venue staff. We got many texts, emails and phone calls afterwards from people saying it was the best wedding ever.” – JP
Learn more at
Ceremony/Reception: Prairie Street Brewing Co., Rockford
Officiant: Kevin Nielsen, Rolling Meadows, Ill.
DJ/Photo Booth: Luxe Productions, Loves Park, Ill.
Photographer: Erik Anderson Photography, Machesney Park, Ill.
Videographer: Vanilla Video, Chicago
Florist: Stems Floral, Rockford
Transportation: Van Galder Bus, Rockford
Bridal Party Attire/Wedding Dress: Jasmine Galleria, Lombard, Ill.
Hair/Makeup: Jasmine Galleria, Lombard, Ill.

The Wagner House, Freeport (Brian Adams Photography photos)
The Wagner House, Freeport (Brian Adams Photography photos)

Rustic Love: The Wagner House, Freeport

Terah and Steve Holland usually dress casually when they go out to a restaurant, but something was unusual on the night of February 6, 2016.
As Terah was getting ready for dinner, she noticed Steve was putting on a nice shirt and sport jacket.
“I was confused, because I thought we were just going out to a casual dinner,” Terah says. “I didn’t understand why he was getting dressed up. He said he hadn’t worn the jacket in a long time, so he wanted to wear it.”
The couple, who met at medical school in an orthopedics interest group at Southern Illinois University, were about to leave for dinner when Steve proposed.
“He got down on one knee and said, ‘1,460 days ago, I was planning my last first date ever. Terah, will you marry me,’” Terah recalls. “I said yes, of course, and he quickly got us out the door to get in an Uber to go to a restaurant for dinner. When we got to the restaurant, he had surprised me with asking both my parents and his parents to come into the city. He planned the whole thing, and I had no idea they were there.”
The couple wanted to get married somewhere close to Terah’s hometown of Polo, Ill. She has a friend who works in nearby Freeport and suggested the couple take a look at The Wagner House.
“We went to check it out without an appointment and they were happy to show us around,” Terah says.
What attracted the couple to The Wagner House was its industrial, rustic appearance. The three-story, former industrial warehouse was built in 1903 and was one of the first buildings to have electricity in Freeport.
Today, it serves as a historically preserved urban oasis. It also serves as Freeport and Stephenson County’s premier wine bar, meeting place and event venue.
“I like how it’s a repurposed old factory,” Terah says. “It was also the right amount of space and it seemed like a fun place. The Wagner House is unique because it has a cool, rustic appearance, and the decorations and layout are great.”
The couple tied the knot on May 6, 2017. They booked The Wagner House more than a year in advance to ensure they got the date they wanted.
“The staff gave us vendor suggestions and told us who they worked with often,” Terah says. “They know who does good work, and it was helpful that the DJ, photographer and the caterer worked weddings at The Wagner House before. They knew what they were doing.”
Looking back on everything, Terah remembers her wedding day as a success.
“We had a great time, and we wouldn’t have chosen anything different,” she says. “We were happy we went with The Wagner House. It was perfect.” – JP
Learn more at
Ceremony: St. Joseph Catholic Church, Freeport
Reception: The Wagner House, Freeport
Catering: Rafters Restaurant, Lena, Ill.
Photography: Brian Adams Photography, Rockton, Ill.
DJ: Jitterbug Events, Freeport
Cake: Cathy’s Custom Cakery, Freeport
Flowers: Deininger Floral Shop, Freeport
Decorations: Mimi’s Events
Bride’s Gown: Martellen’s Dress & Bridal Boutique, Lemont, Ill.
Transportation: AAA Quality Limousines, Loves Park, Ill.

The Standard, Rockford (Mindy Joy Photography photos)
The Standard, Rockford (Mindy Joy Photography photos)

Something Worth Seeing: The Standard, Rockford

Rockford native Libby Leatherby’s wedding was a happy occasion for many reasons, especially because her son, Noah, was there to see his mom get married.
Just two months after Mitch Leatherby proposed to Libby on Mother’s Day, in 2015, Noah was diagnosed with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer that forms in muscle tissue. The couple cancelled their wedding plans to take care of Noah.
“We decided to put the wedding on the back-burner and get our son through treatment,” Libby says. “Our son’s health was our first priority and always will be.”
As the months progressed, Noah’s health started to improve. The more his health improved, the more his parents planned that wedding they’d left behind.
In the spring of 2016, when it came time to search for a wedding venue, the couple learned of The Standard, a wedding venue that was then still in the works. It’s owned by Brent Hughes and his wife, Betsy – both personal friends of Libby’s. Their new venue, which opened late in 2016, takes advantage of the decades-old building by putting on full display its beautiful concrete and red brick skeleton.
“When we booked The Standard, it was pretty much a construction site,” Libby says. “We were able to see their vision through photos on an iPad, and we used our imagination to envision what the end result would look like. Knowing Betsy for so many years, I knew she had an eye for art and style, and I knew it would be beautiful.”
Libby says their May 20, 2017, wedding couldn’t have gone better.
“Our wedding happened at a venue we didn’t even know about when we were engaged,” she says. “It’s the most beautiful venue I’ve ever been to. Even the bathrooms are beautiful.”
Whether it’s weddings or another social occastion, The Standard’s crew helps to eliminate many of the hassles and stresses of a wedding day. The rooftop patio is equipped for outdoor weddings, and it provides a sweeping overlook of downtown Rockford’s rooftops and riverscape. An adjacent conservatory and full bar provide a great location for cocktail hour.
Down on the second floor is a 260-guest dining hall with all of the amenities for dinner and dancing. Food is provided by Chef Paul Sletten, who owns several downtown Rockford staples.
London Avenue Designs, which specializes in interior decorating, wedding planning and event design, is stationed on the building’s first-floor retail area.
Libby, her bridesmaids, her mother and mother-in-law had their hair and makeup done at Arch, a beauty boutique also located on the first floor of The Standard.
“Everything that we needed was taken care of inside one building, which was extremely convenient,” Libby says.
The Standard’s many amenities proved helpful when it rained on the day of the wedding. The ceremony was easily relocated to the conservatory
“A lot of brides who have an outdoor wedding would panic if it rains, but there was never that feeling because we had a solid backup plan,” Libby says. “We got married in The Standard’s conservatory, and it wound up being just as beautiful.”
Noah, who has now been in remission for nine months, served as the ring bearer.
“He was definitely the star of the show at the wedding,” Libby says. “This was so emotional, for more reasons than marrying my husband. It was just so great having Noah there.” – JP
Learn more at
Ceremony/ Reception: The Standard, Rockford
Catering: Paul Sletten, Abreo Restaurant, Rockford
Music/DJ: Jason Glidden, Rockford
Photographer: Mindy Joy Photography, Rockford
Flowers: Event Floral, Loves Park
Bride’s Gown: BHLDN, Chicago
Wedding Planner: Backyard Soirée Events, Rockford
Pastor: Gregg Giamalva, Stateline Church, Rockford
Hair/Makeup: Arch, Rockford

Famous Fossil Vineyard & Winery, Freeport
Famous Fossil Vineyard & Winery, Freeport

Taste of Wine Country: Famous Fossil Vineyard & Winery, Freeport

Ever since they opened Famous Fossil Vineyard & Winery, in Freeport, Ken and Pam Rosmann have been asked about hosting weddings on their beautiful, rolling property in northwest Illinois. For the longest time, it just wasn’t possible to accommodate such a gathering.
But things are changing with the introduction of The Crib at Famous Fossil, a social events space housed inside the winery’s beautifully restored 1930s-era corn crib. The Crib and its adjoining shelter draw together the elegance of wine country with quintessential rustic elements – rusted steel, aged wood, antique equipment, and plenty of Midwestern character.
“It’s got beautiful woodwork and steel siding, which is unusual,” says Pam. “And, we left the elevator and pulley systems that were used to move grain around the crib. The bar is made from these beautiful planks that had been upstairs.”
Families that choose to host a wedding at Famous Fossil can celebrate intimate ceremonies and receptions inside The Crib, which seats about 130 theater-style and about 80 at tables. The area overlooks a bridge and the gently rolling slopes where cornstalks and nearly 2,100 grapevines reach skyward.
Rustic decor around The Crib and the winery leaves brides with little need for extra ornamentation. Pam offers props like candelabras and steel or wicker arches, but she finds that little else is usually needed.
“People come in when hosting showers or corporate events, and they’ll say, ‘I don’t need to do decorating at all,’” says Pam. “We want to minimize your stress and worry, and provide a space that’s ready for you when you arrive.”
To that end, set-up and cleanup services are provided with every space rental. Families that rent The Crib also receive access to wedding coordinator Sarah Thies, tables and chairs, and a customizable menu sourced as locally as possible.
Playing on the winery’s nine-year tradition of serving small dishes or fruit and cheese plates, this menu offers several choices for families. Grilling for these buffet-style meals is provided by a local caterer who serves choice cuts of meat, often sourced from local farms.
This being a winery, Famous Fossil wines and local craft beers round out the bar options. Famous Fossil is best known for its wine blends, which mix varietals of cold-weather grapes – names such as LaCrescent, Marquette, and Frontenac that are well suited for the Illinois climate and fossil-rich limestone deposits feeding Famous Fossil’s grapes.
“You come to our winery and you’re going to taste what’s grown and produced right here,” says Pam. “And, it’s a taste of the true climate and character of the northwestern Illinois landscape.”
Famous Fossil hosts its very first weddings late this summer – the perfect time to capitalize on the rich colors of the vineyard.
“It’s a beautiful setting,” says Pam. “Many people look out at, and even walk through, the vineyard. It’s a way for them to understand what we do here at our winery and to feel closer to nature.” – CL
Learn more at

Barnacopia, Polo, Ill. (ellAdele Photography photos)
Barnacopia, Polo, Ill. (ellAdele Photography photos)

Love’s No Drag: Barnacopia, Polo, Ill.

When it comes to rubber meeting the road, Chelsey and Randy Simpson know what to do.
Chelsey, a Stillman Valley native, grew up around drag racing and the Byron Dragway, which her family owns. Streator native Randy was a general manager for Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis when he spied Chelsey and her signature blue Camaro at an Indy race in September 2015.
Soon into their first date, the pair found they had a surprising amount in common.
“Our joke was that we realized we were both left-handed drag racers who drive Camaros,” Chelsey says.
When Randy eventually moved back to Illinois, their romance charged ahead. Just before Easter 2016, Randy had a surprise waiting for Chelsey on a romantic getaway to Shawnee National Forest, in southern Illinois.
“He had this backpack with him all day, and I had no idea why, because we’re not serious hikers,” Chelsey recalls. “I kept asking him, ‘Why do you have that backpack?’ And he just said we were having a picnic.”
At the top of a rocky outcrop, Randy pulled something from the bag and turned to Chelsey.
“He said to put on this blindfold and put in these earplugs. I’ll be right back,” she says.
What she couldn’t see or hear was Randy removing from his backpack a tripod, a camera and a velvety box. As the blindfold and earplugs came off, Chelsey saw him down on one knee.
“It was a total surprise,” she says.
Soon, the couple were looking for wedding venues close to home. They admired the rustic barn look and quickly discovered Barnacopia, in Polo. The barn-like building is part bed-and-breakfast, part museum and part social gathering space. Its three floors include displays of antique tractors and old cars, in addition to several settings that are ideal for wedding receptions and ceremonies. One look inside was all it took to sell Chelsey and Randy.
“We just said, ‘This is the place,’” Chelsey recalls. “Both of our families are really into hot rods, and we felt right at home.”
The venue is owned and operated by a family who farms the surrounding land, so the couple were treated like family throughout the planning process. Any time Chelsey had a question, she received quick responses from events planner Rachel Davis. Owner Gary Bocker welcomed the couple any time they visited – including the day before the wedding, as the family arrived to decorate.
“Gary might be working the farm, and so he’d see us and stop in to talk,” says Chelsey. “It just made us feel like we were at home, like it was our barn, too.”
Chelsey and Randy were married April 1, 2017, at a nearby Catholic church. Before they arrived at Barnacopia for the reception, their guests strolled the displays inside.
By the end of the night, the new couple were headed to a private suite inside the barn’s silo, where they planned to stay the night. They awoke the next morning to find breakfast prepared downstairs – just another of many family-like touches.
“It was so nice that you get your first breakfast together as husband and wife in the dining room on the first floor of the silo,” says Chelsey. “We came down to see pancakes, bacon and a plate of fruit waiting for us. It just makes you feel like you’re right at home.” – CL
Learn more at
Ceremony: St. Mary Catholic Church, Byron, Ill.
Reception: Barnacopia, Polo, Ill.
Catering: Penguin Foods, Rockford
Music/DJ: DJ Felix Entertainment, Lake Geneva
Photography: ellAdele Photography, Rockford
Flowers: Event Floral, Rockford
Bride’s Gown: Brandi’s Bridal Galleria, New Glarus, Wis.
Limo: Hollywood Limo, Byron, Ill.

Woodbine Bend Golf Course, Stockton, Ill. (Ceara Westaby photos)
Woodbine Bend Golf Course, Stockton, Ill. (Ceara Westaby photos)

Hole in One: Woodbine Bend Golf Course, Stockton, Ill.

Iowa native Ashlie Stoddard never thought golfing at Woodbine Bend Golf Course, in Stockton, Ill., would lead her to meet her future husband – or find the perfect venue for her future wedding reception. But, after a few weeks out on the links, her fate was sealed.
Sam Stoddard, a Chicago suburbs native and manager of Woodbine Bend, initially met Ashlie in Stockton while working on an economic development project. However, it wasn’t until Ashlie started golfing at Woodbine that the two started dating.
Two-and-a-half years later, Sam was kneeling in front of Ashlie in his home, ring in hand.
“He had the ring for months before giving it to me, losing sleep trying to decide on the perfect time to propose,” Ashlie says. “Finally, he wound up proposing on a whim, figuring there’s no time like the present.”
The two were married in the Dominican Republic but wanted to have a reception in Stockton for family members and friends who were unable to travel abroad.
“We wanted to do something a little outside of the ordinary for our reception and have it outside,” Ashlie says. “We decided to have a picnic theme, which made Woodbine an obvious choice because of all the outdoor space.”
Woodbine offers a banquet hall with a capacity of 180, but it also offers several outdoor spaces including decks and event areas on the course, making it an ideal venue for weddings and receptions year-round. Ashlie recalls spending the day looking over the beautiful hilly landscape, chatting with friends and family about the wedding, and listening to the flow of water from the nearby creek.
Aside from the beauty of the venue, Ashlie believes a large attraction of a Woodbine wedding is working with the experienced wedding planner who alleviates stress from the planning process. The couple worked with Woodbine’s event planner to coordinate everything: tents and tables, food trucks, a fully stocked bar, a live band and yard games.
“It’s easy to forget about some of the many elements that go into a wedding, so it was really nice to have a planner who could keep everything on track,” Ashlie says.
Although Woodbine offers catering service, Ashlie decided to bring in food trucks so Sam and the Woodbine employees could enjoy themselves and not worry about cooking.
“For most of the weddings Woodbine puts on, the people getting married usually don’t have to worry about much, mine included,” Sam says. “Our expirienced staff bring in the flowers and the decor, they hire the DJ or band, and provide all the food. The only thing the event planner needs to know is a theme or color scheme and what the couple wants served for dinner. The rest is on our staff, and they haven’t let a couple down yet.”
Sam recommends couples start coordinating with a planner six to nine months in advance, to allow plenty of time for arranging a beautiful wedding at Woodbine. – CC
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Ceremony: Destination wedding in the Dominican Republic
Reception: Woodbine Bend Golf Course, Stockton, Ill.
Catering: Adobos Mexican Grill, Dubuque, Iowa
Magoo’s Pizza, Dubuque, Iowa
Photography: Through Ceara’s Eyes, Stockton, Ill.
Cake: Candle Ready Cakes, Dubuque, Iowa

(Erica Pospeshil Photography photos)
Maxson Riverboat and Riverside Restaurant, Oregon (Erica Pospeshil Photography 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 says. “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.” – LG
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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

Oak Lane, Oregon (Bailey Lynn Photography photos)
Oak Lane, Oregon (Bailey Lynn Photography photos)

Smitten at First Sight: Oak Lane, Oregon, Ill.

Brittney Kulisek was impressed with Tom Chambers when she met him on a blind date. He was cute and chivalrous, and his great sense of humor kept her laughing for hours.
Tom was similarly smitten at first sight.
“Brittney was beautiful,” he says. “When we met, I loved that she spent most of the time talking, so I didn’t have to. She drank good beer, and not only insisted on paying for herself, but did so with a Chicago Bears card.”
Though Brittney lived in DeKalb, Ill., and Tom lived in Rockford, Tom knew after only a week that he wanted to someday marry Brittney. He proposed a couple of months later when the couple were on vacation in San Antonio, Texas.
“We met my best friend, Courtnie, for dinner on the river walk,” Brittney says. “Courtnie insisted on taking photos, so we proceeded to walk up and down the river walk trying to find the perfect place. Eventually, Tom found a bridge and got down on one knee while I was turned away. When I turned around, I couldn’t hold back the yes.”
The couple began searching for a wedding venue immediately. Tom’s sister recommended Oak Lane in Oregon, Ill. – a unique 1800s dairy barn remodeled into a chic reception hall. Set on 16 acres, Oak Lane offers five outdoor ceremony locations as well as an indoor space that can accommodate up to 180 guests. Receptions are held in the barn’s hayloft upstairs. Adding character to the venue are two potbelly pigs, Baconette and Hambone; two llamas, Dilly Dally and Tessa; a Belted Hampshire sheep named Lucy and a lamb named Lambchop.
Oak Lane was the first and last venue the couple looked at.
“We loved the space, the barn and the ambience that it all had,” Brittney says. “We knew it was the one. We literally booked it a week after we got engaged.”
Brittney and Tom were married on May 13, 2017. Oak Lane’s owner, Jodi Horner, was always quick to respond whenever the couple emailed with questions. She even provided intentionally mismatched wooden chairs, tables, linens, bartenders and decor items. Guests could dance the night away upstairs, hang out at the bar downstairs, or venture outside to enjoy a “bride’s cigar bar” set up by Brittney’s dad.
“We feel like we got way more than we paid for,” Brittney says. “We loved that we had the outdoor ceremony followed by the reception in the barn. We feel like this was unique among our friends and family. The animals at the farm were a fun part, too. Truly, the day was more amazing than we could have even dreamed of.”
The couple made their wedding unique by setting up lawn games and by catering woodfire brick oven pizza. Brittney’s advice is to trust Jodi to make your day perfect.
“She’s even the one who recommended our DJ,” Brittney says. “She definitely knows what she is doing.” – LG
Learn more at
Ceremony/Reception: Oak Lane, Oregon, Ill.
Music/DJ: Phil Eicksteadt
Catering: Veebo’s Woodfire Pizza, Rockford
Photographer: Bailey Lynn Photography, Oregon, Ill.
Flowers: Etsy shop NovelExpression
Cupcakes: Cakes by Dea, Marengo, Ill.

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

Sunshine-Filled Love: Rocky Waters Vineyard and Winery, Hanover, Ill.

On their first visit to Rocky Waters Vineyard and Winery in 2013, Andrew Richmond and Erinn Strauch fell in love with it.
“We went to the winery and had a nice time with Kyle Spahn, the son of the owners,” says Andy. “Once we saw the place, we thought it was beautiful and knew we wanted to have our wedding there.”
Through their next several visits, the couple learned more about the winemaking process, sampled more of Rocky Waters’ bottles and started to brainstorm ideas for their big day. It became an exciting process for the couple, who hadn’t previously known much about wine.
In fact, Andy and Erinn were first drawn to each other because of their mutual interests in hunting and enjoying time outdoors, when they met in 2008 through friends. The picturesque vineyard, rolling hills and lush site next to the property’s lake was the perfect setting for two nature lovers to be wed. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Rocky Waters also made what became one of Andy’s favorite wines, the award-winning Cedar Lake Blush.
“After having a little too much wine, I told Erinn that I figured out what makes it so good – that it’s sunshine in a bottle,” says Andy. “She makes jokes about that still.”
They worked closely with Spahn over the next six months to plan out the rest of their ceremony set for Aug.16, 2014. By renting the venue’s fisherman’s cabin alongside the lake, they were able to schedule an entire weekend to relax and enjoy with their nearly 100 guests. Andy says photos of the cabin don’t do it justice.
“Kyle was awesome to work with,” says Erinn. “One of my favorite parts was using the fisherman’s cabin. We had the rehearsal dinner there, which was really accommodating for everyone. And after the wedding, the preacher announced that everyone was welcome inside for wine samplings and hors d’ oeuvres. That was super nice to have everyone at the wedding stick around for a few minutes and enjoy it.”
The relaxed atmosphere seemed to carry over from their engagement, when the couple spent a leisurely, private day at home, after Andy proposed in 2012.
“I had worked the night shift and had gone home to take a nap. When I woke up, he was there and proposed! I don’t even think I was awake enough,” laughs Erinn. “I remember asking him ‘What?’ several times.”
Spahn also set up a tractor-pulled wagon to transport guests conveniently from the parking lot to the wedding site and back, touring through the vineyard’s charming views. The reception was later held at Gil’s Ballroom, in Clinton, Iowa, with close to 200 additional family members and friends.
“Everything went perfectly,” says Andy. “Our guests loved it, too. A whole bunch of them didn’t even know that there was something like that in the area where they could go.”
Nearly a year after their ceremony, Andy and Erinn still visit the winery to enjoy a glass of wine and take it all in. – SS

Byron Forest Preserve District, Byron, Ill. (Erik Lunsford Photography photo)
Byron Forest Preserve District, Byron, Ill. (Erik Lunsford Photography photo)

A Fresh Face Forward: Byron Forest Preserve District, Byron, Ill.

Raul Leon has witnessed many happy moments in his career. The facility manager for the Byron Forest Preserve District, in Byron, Ill., has seen marriage proposals, engagement photos, rehearsal dinners, wedding ceremonies and wedding receptions.
“We have a venue where everything can happen,” Leon says. “And, we’re very affordable in comparison to other area venues.”
The newly renovated main-floor museum of the Jarrett Prairie Center can hold up to 110 people, while a new deck, overlooking 450 acres of prairie, can seat an additional 150 people. The lower level of the Jarrett Prairie Center can accommodate up to 180 people for rehearsals, ceremonies and receptions. In addition, the pavilion at PrairieView Golf Club can accommodate 200 people.
At both the golf club and the Jarrett Center, couples can access bar services, ample parking and kitchen facilities. And, they can take advantage of photo opportunities in the many outdoor areas that include a wooden bridge and stage.
“Since we are located on one of the highest points in Ogle County, the scenery at the Byron Forest Preserve is like no other venue,” Leon says. “It’s absolutely beautiful in every season.”
He recommends booking at least 30 days in advance, however, accommodations can be made as far as a year in advance or at the last minute – if space is available.
“As with most venues, Saturdays fill up quickly,” Leon says. “It’s best to book as soon as you can. For more information, visit, find us on Facebook, and please join us at Rockford’s Own Bridal Expo on Sept. 17, starting at 2 p.m. at the Tebala Event Center.” – LG
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Hilton Garden Inn, Rockford (SB Photography and Design photo)
Hilton Garden Inn, Rockford (SB Photography and Design photo)

Middle School Crush: Hilton Garden Inn, Rockford

Jessica Hohler had a crush on Joe McCuen in middle school. Unfortunately, Joe was more interested in skateboarding than girls at that time.
“We actually met in second grade,” Jessica says. “Our moms were best friends when we were kids.”
The two lost touch in high school when Joe’s family moved away from Belvidere. Years later, Jessica was pleasantly surprised when Joe sent her a Facebook friend request.
“We started exchanging messages and decided to meet up for dinner, drinks and watching a Blackhawks game,” Jessica says. “It was so easy to talk to each other.”
The childhood friends became husband and wife on May 27, 2017. After a beautiful ceremony at Midway Village Museum, the couple entered their reception at Hilton Garden Inn wearing personalized Blackhawks jerseys saying “Mr. McCuen” and “Mrs. McCuen.”
Jessica knew exactly what she wanted with decorations, but the Hilton Garden Inn staff surpassed all of her expectations.
“They made it look even better than I envisioned,” she says. “The staff was just amazing and so helpful with everything.”
The hotel setting was also ideal for the McCuens’ guests, since no one had to travel after enjoying an open bar experience.
“Everyone told us they had a great time,” Jessica says. “We received many compliments on the food, decorations and venue.”
A variety of wedding packages are available at Hilton Garden Inn. All come with room setup, hors d’oeuvres, a champagne toast and cake cutting. The McCuens opted for a package that included dinner and an open bar.
“We booked Hilton Garden Inn more than a year in advance,” Jessica says. “We highly recommend having your reception here.” – LG
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