Wedding Dreams: 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.”

(ellAdele Photography photo)

It’s All Here
River’s Edge Experience | Oregon, Ill.

Sitting on the banks of the Rock River, nestled among more than 11,000 acres of woodlands and green spaces, Oregon is already a popular Illinois visitor attraction. Now, with the opening of River’s Edge Experience, the city is also an ideal place for a beautiful and convenient destination wedding.

Housed in a historic building from the 1930s, this stunning 7,000-square-foot venue has been completely upgraded and renovated, creating a wide-open venue space that can be used for wedding ceremonies, receptions, showers or all three.

One of the best features offered by River’s Edge Experience is its versatility. A spacious outdoor patio is located just outside, connected to the building by a large, decorative overhead door. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, the door can be opened, and an outdoor wedding can quickly be converted to an indoor one. The door can also be left open during receptions, adding extra space for dancing, dining, mingling or taking photos with a breathtaking backdrop. These interchangeable spaces also allow for quick turnaround times, making the transition from ceremony and cocktail hour to dinner and reception a seamless endeavor.

A catering kitchen is on site, giving caterers everything they need to prepare a delicious meal for guests. River’s Edge Experience also provides full bar service, run through Cork & Tap, a popular local tavern. This eliminates the legwork involved in hiring bar staff, sourcing liquor and filling out licensing paperwork that other venues might require.

River’s Edge Experience also features individual bride and groom’s suites, with ample room for both sides of the bridal party to prepare for their big day. Each suite has its own sound system, giving an excited bride or groom a chance to listen to their own music while they prepare to go down the aisle. The bridal suite is equipped with everything a hair and makeup team would need to prepare the bride for her special day.

With a capacity for up to 300 guests, the flexibility to accommodate a variety of seating and floor plans, and all of the on-site amenities needed for a ceremony and reception, River’s Edge Experience is already a welcome addition to the city of Oregon and surrounding Ogle County. –JT

(Luis Hermosillo Phototography photo)

Like Family
Franchesco’s Ristorante | Rockford

Deidra Tillis didn’t have to look far to find her future husband, Mark Gaseor.

“We were neighbors at Bradley University, in Peoria,” she says.

They dated in college, graduated and moved together to Wheeling. It was in their apartment that Mark got down on one knee.

“I got home from work and noticed the door was unlocked,” she laughs. “At first, I was annoyed, but then he proposed. It was a random Friday night, so he took me by surprise.”

The couple were married on June 18, 2022, in an outdoor ceremony at Klehm Arboretum, in Rockford, where they were surrounded by friends, family and a stunning floral landscape.

“The weather was 76 degrees and sunny,” says Deidra. “I don’t know how it could have possibly been better.”

Klehm Arboretum is a former tree nursery turned botanic garden that’s known locally for its natural beauty. Because of its colorful backdrop and its versatile gathering spaces, the arboretum is a choice destination for outdoor ceremonies and receptions, with accommodations that suit groups as small as 25 and as large as 500 people. Catering and events are managed exclusively by the team behind Franchesco’s Ristorante, itself a premier wedding destination and Deidra’s choice for the rehearsal dinner and reception.

Deidra had already been part of two weddings at Franchesco’s, and her previous experience had left a positive impact. When the time came to plan her own special day, she knew she made the right decision.

“Any time we visited Franchesco’s, the whole team made us feel like family,” she says. “They were always available to check in and touch base. Every conversation was light and happy. We held our rehearsal dinner on the patio, and it was absolutely beautiful.”

On her wedding day, the staff at Klehm Arboretum made sure the ceremony was perfect, and at Franchesco’s every detail was attended to, including the candles – all 200 of them.

“The team told us that we set the record for the number of candles,” she laughs. “They made sure every candle was lit the entire night.”

During the well-lit reception, general manager Michelle LaMay and her staff frequently checked in to make sure Deidra and Mark were comfortable, fed and having fun.

“The food was absolutely fantastic,” Deidra says. “I received so many compliments from my guests.”
Looking back, Deidra is thrilled with the hard work and dedication that Klehm Arboretum and Franchesco’s Ristorante put into her wedding day.

“It was a wonderful full-package feel,” she says. “The whole team is terrific and very attentive.” –JT

(Jessica Sheridan Photography photo)

So Nice They Married Twice
Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa | Galena, Ill.

For Sarah Thole, hosting her wedding at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa, in Galena, Ill., was a dream come true – quite literally.

“I wanted to get married at Eagle Ridge since I was 16 years old,” she says, recalling the time when she stumbled upon the Eagle Ballroom being decorated during a visit to the Galena-area resort.
Little did she know her dream would come true, not once but twice.

“Our first wedding ceremony was Aug. 1, 2020,” Sarah says. “When COVID hit, we decided to book a second date at Eagle Ridge for the reception.”

For their second reception, held in July 2021, Sarah and Logan were joined by a very special guest, their son, Auden.

Sarah met Logan on the very first day of their very first class at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. Both were pursuing a degree in early education.

“We were friends for a couple of years, then we started dating,” says Sarah. “He proposed to me on my birthday, in front of our Christmas tree.”

Since Sarah and Logan are both teachers, Logan added a little something special to his proposal.
“He gave me a laminated answer guide,” she laughs. “It only had one answer, which was ‘yes.’”

No sooner were they were engaged then Sarah contacted Eagle Ridge to book a date for their wedding. 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.

“We ended up booking the first ceremony about a year-and-a-half out,” says Sarah, who recommends giving ample notice to wedding manager Maggie Truppa, due to the resort’s popularity.

The ceremony itself was held on the Point Patio, the ballroom’s wraparound deck overlooking Lake Galena.

“The view was absolutely gorgeous,” Sarah says.

Sarah was also pleased with the way that, despite added COVID restrictions, both weddings went off without a hitch.

“Maggie and her team did a wonderful job,” she says. “She was kind and checked in often, which I really appreciated.”

It was no surprise to Sarah that the day went so smoothly.

“As soon as I met Maggie, I realized that I wouldn’t need a wedding planner,” she says. “It was a huge relief to know that I could rely on someone who works right there, at Eagle Ridge.”

For Sarah and Logan, both days were a spectacular realization of a long-held dream.
“When I first saw the room decorated when I was a teenager, it was like seeing something from a magazine or movie come to life,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow. That’s attainable. I could have this for my own day.’”

And she did. Twice. –JT

(ellAdele Photography photo)

Easy on the Eyes
Illinois Bank & Trust Pavilion | Rockford

From the moment Danae Savitski met Sonny, she knew the two would create lifelong memories together.

“I wanted to marry him almost as soon as I met him,” says Danae, of Stillman Valley, Ill. “He says he had this feeling from the start as well, but the process of getting to know each other over the next couple years confirmed everything we felt from the beginning.”

The couple initially met at City First Church in Rockford and through mutual friends, but their relationship took off when Sonny, of Rockford, visited Danae when she worked at Tavern on Clark in Rockford in November 2015.

“I heard of his reputation and I knew he was humble and genuine, and when I got to know him, he had a great sense of humor and he was so easy to talk to,” Danae says. “He was also easy on the eyes.”

After they dated for just under two years, Sonny made his move on March 29, 2018. He asked one of Danae’s friends to plan a girl’s trip to Chicago. When Danae arrived in the city, she was surprised to discover Sonny waiting for her outside of Adler Planetarium, a breathtaking view of the Chicago skyline behind him.

“That’s where he proposed,” Danae says. “I was shocked. He says everything went exactly according to plan, except it was much colder than he anticipated, so he felt like he had to say what he was going to say quickly.”

The couple started searching for wedding venues, but at first didn’t find anything that spoke to them. Then they discovered the Illinois Bank & Trust Pavilion.

“We loved it because it’s in Rockford, we had the reception and ceremony in the same location and it checked off all of our other boxes,” Danae says. “The staff was so great to us from the start, and they really worked with us on pricing. We knew it was the right spot.”

The Illinois Bank & Trust Pavilion features 5,500 square feet of elegant space with a large stone fireplace, giant glass windows that overlook Aldeen Golf Club and an outdoor pergola.
It holds about 250 people for weddings and 300 for social events. The venue hosts 50 to 70 weddings each year, says Taneel Fraley, director of operations. Fraley suggests booking 10 to 14 months in advance. Danae booked about one year in advance.

The couple got married on June 8, 2019. Guests raved about the wonderful venue, Danae says.
“They loved it. Everyone was commenting on how beautiful the space was, inside and out,” she says. “It was convenient, it’s a great part of town and everything was easily accessible. It was an incredible experience for everyone, and most people had not been there before, so they were very impressed.”

Looking back, Danae says she wouldn’t change a thing.

“Our wedding was honestly a dream come true and the best day of our lives,” she says. “We wanted to enjoy every moment with each other and with our family members and best friends and that’s what we did. Everyone we worked with was incredible and we would recommend their services to anyone.” –JP

(UnPosed Photography photo)

Worth Every Penny
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

(McConville Studio photo)

A Winter Wedding
Starved Rock Lodge | Oglesby, Ill.

Stephanie Daley met Steven Molenstra in their senior year at Lewis University, in Romeoville, Ill., while hanging out with mutual friends. They knew from the get-go there was something special.

“We just started talking, and before long we were dating,” says Stephanie. “I am so happy with where our journey together has brought us today.”

Eight years later, with the occasional long-distance stint in between, Stephanie and Steven were ready to settle down.

“Steven’s proposal was perfect,” says Stephanie. “I didn’t think I could be surprised, because we had been together for so long, but he caught me off guard.”

Steven timed the proposal to coincide with Stephanie’s birthday. While treating her to a birthday dinner, followed by ice cream, the couple returned home to find their back porch arranged in a romantic setting, complete with candles and champagne.

“He took me into the backyard and asked me to read a card he gave me,” she recalls. “He proposed to me in our first home together.”

When it came time to plan the wedding, Stephanie had only one venue in mind: Starved Rock Lodge, near Oglesby, Ill.

“I wanted the wedding at Starved Rock Lodge for a combination of reasons,” she says. “My husband’s family used to visit there when he was growing up. Also, it was only an hour or so away for us and most of our family and friends.”

Another reason was that Starved Rock Lodge, located inside the popular state park, was ready to handle the ceremony, the reception and overnight lodging all in one location. Available for weddings year-round, Starved Rock Lodge offers venue space both indoors and outdoors.

“Everything was right there for us,” she says. “I wanted it to feel like a weekend getaway.”

There was one more little twist: this was a winter wedding, scheduled for Jan. 21, 2022.

Lucky for Stephanie, the Lodge’s Great Hall was ready to impress. Not only did the team at Starved Rock Lodge exceed the couple’s expectations, but the bride and groom were also treated to stunning views and photo opportunities in the state park.

“Our photos are just so unique,” she says. “We have one of the whole wedding party in front of a frozen waterfall.”

Stephanie remains impressed with how prepared the Starved Rock Lodge staff always was. “Everyone works as a team,” she says. “The day ran seamlessly.”

For anyone planning a wedding at Starved Rock Lodge, Stephanie advises going with the venue’s recommended vendors.

“They’ve all worked together so closely, and everyone knows everyone,” she says. “They were fantastic at putting together timelines, communicating with one another, and knowing where everything was. It was so nice to not have to worry about anything.”

Stephanie has no regrets with her decision to choose Starved Rock Lodge for her special day. She and Steven have even made it an anniversary tradition to return.

“Now, we have a place to go back and visit every year,” she says. –JT

(Mitch and Rachel Visuals photo)

The Family Footsteps
Rockford Woman’s Club | Rockford

Chelsea Garrett and some friends from her church had a girl’s night in May 2016. The more her friends started talking about how great Tyrone, a fellow church member, was, the more curious Chelsea became.

“I made a comment and said, ‘If he needs a wife, let him know I’m available,’” she says.

What started as a playful joke slowly became a reality. Three months after that night with her friends, Chelsea was lending a hand at Auburn High School when she crossed paths with Tyrone.
“What attracted me to him was his outgoing personality, and he was always kind to everyone,” Chelsea says.

Soon after that first conversation, the couple started dating.

“I never got bored and the conversations that we had were real,” Chelsea says. “I realized pretty early on that this was something special and he was something special.”

The couple went to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, with some friends in July 2017. That’s when Tyrone made his move.

“When we were settled on the beach, my friends wanted to take pictures,” Chelsea says. “Everyone was talking about a boat behind me, so I turned around to look. When I turned around, he was right there in the sand down on one knee.”

When it came time to find a wedding venue, Chelsea decided to follow in her parents’ footsteps and get married at the Rockford Woman’s Club. Her parents, Ann and Terry Gulley, exchanged their wedding vows at the same historic venue more than 30 years ago on Feb. 13, 1988. They’re still married to this day.

“I knew about the venue, but I’ve never been inside,” Chelsea says. “My mom suggested we go check it out, and I fell in love.”

Chelsea and Tyrone tied the knot on Oct. 6, 2018. The couple locked down the venue a year in advance.

The Rockford Woman’s Club boasts 100 years of architectural beauty. It has a large space upstairs for dancing and music in the Belle Keith Art Gallery. There’s a sunroom positioned just off the gallery, which could be used for photos or a quiet place to catch your breath.

Right outside the gallery is a balcony, perfect for a bouquet or garter toss.

“The venue is gorgeous and needed very little decorating,” Chelsea says. “You don’t need to add a lot of decor because the venue has so many beautiful details already.”

Head down a grand staircase and you’ll find an elegant banquet hall that’s large enough to accommodate 175 people under normal circumstances.

Chelsea credits the staff at the Rockford Woman’s Club for making their wedding day extra special.

“On the day of the wedding, we were their No. 1 focus and they made sure everything ran smoothly,” Chelsea says. “[Nancy Whitlock, president of the Rockford Woman’s Club] was truly the biggest blessing to us, and she made sure everything went smoothly. I was so happy she was a part of the day.” – JP

Beauty on a Budget
Baltic Mill | Belvidere

The Baltic Mill’s unique, natural setting welcomes couples who want an outdoor celebration for their wedding day. The historic area, owned by the Belvidere Park District, provides a backdrop of calming greenery for ceremonies.

The venue currently focuses on holding ceremonies in an outdoor setting – perfect for any couple looking for a beautiful setting on a budget.

The Baltic Mill offers four wedding packages for brides and grooms to choose from. Each package includes a 3-hour time block for ceremonies to commence in an area with a stage and hillside seating for guests. Larger packages include a conference room and rehearsal time for the night before. An on-site wedding coordinator is available for all packages.

Reservations are taken on a first-come, first-paid basis, with various times available on weekends and throughout the week. The Belvidere Park District requests that couples book the Baltic Mill at least 90 days prior to the event. However, the Belvidere Park District is willing to accommodate couples with any last-minute requests if the dates are available.

The venue has anywhere from 20-40 weddings per year – a significant amount considering that the season is only from April to October. The space can hold 300 guests, all on natural limestone seating. Those interested in seeing the facility can call and schedule a tour. –NWQ

(Mindy Joy Photography photo)

Love Me Tender
Stronghold Retreat & Conference Center | Oregon, Ill.

When Johnny Abbatiello met Natalia Proscinski, he was all shook up.

“I was immediately star-struck,” says Johnny, a firefighter and lifelong Elvis Presley fan.

When the time came to propose, he did it in a place fit for a king. While the couple was touring Presley’s former home at Graceland, Johnny decided it was now or never. Shortly after their engagement, the pair attended an event at Stronghold Retreat & Conference Center, in Oregon, Ill., and they couldn’t help falling in love with the courtyard.

“We were walking down the steps and Natalia intuitively said, ‘I think I want to get married here,’” recalls Johnny. “We’ve always felt great energy on the grounds.”

Located on 360 acres of woodland, Stronghold is the former summer home of Walter Strong, owner and publisher of the Chicago Daily News. Offering stunning views of the Rock River, this Tudor-style castle offers an opportunity to have a fairy tale wedding and reception in one of six outdoor and indoor locations, including the castle’s legendary Great Hall.

Married in the spring of 2021, Johnny and Natalia found their unique vision for the wedding was met with enthusiasm from Stronghold’s staff, including Danny Pierce and Kristine “Kitty” Johnson, who used a little less conversation and a little more action to follow that dream.

“Everyone enjoyed fresh air and danced their butts off,” says Johnny. “Danny and Kitty are so heartfelt and passionate about Stronghold and will help you create the wedding of your dreams.”

Johnny and Natalia have returned to Stronghold on several occasions to create more memories.

For them, the castle will always be a reminder of that one night they celebrated their burning love. –JT

Step Back in Time
The Funderburg House | Belvidere

Since Funderburg House opened to the public, this restored mansion has become one of Belvidere’s crown jewels.

Previously owned by the Funderburg and Fuller-Rhinehart families but now owned by the Boone County Historical Society, the Tudor Revival-style home takes visitors on a travel through time, within rooms lovingly restored as they might have looked in the early and middle part of the 20th century. Best of all, it’s also an intimate setting for couples to celebrate their love in a truly vintage space.

“For a typical rental, we offer our entire ADA-accessible first floor, the surrounding porches and the garden,” says Anna Pivoras, executive director and rental manager for the Boone County Museum of History. “We also offer full-house rentals on request.” A bridal suite is also available.

Funderburg House offers a kitchen for caterers to assemble prepared foods while a rolling bar supports beverage service.

The house itself can accommodate up to 100 guests, but the large garden area just outside adds even more space for social events.

“Our beautifully appointed lawn is the perfect place for a tent and outdoor seating,” says Pivoras. “We also have a third-floor party room that can seat up to 25 people.” –JT

(Brittany Crumpacker photo)

Seamless and Unique
Boone County Museum of History | Belvidere

Madelyn Deardorff met Rob Tynan when they were college students and singing in the choir at Illinois College, in Jacksonville. Following graduation, while in a long-distance relationship, they returned to campus for a photo session – or so she thought.

“I walked the building where he had told me he had feelings for me, and he had a proposal all set up,” she recalls. “Our parents were there as well, so it was really special.”

The couple quickly began planning their special day. For the reception, Madelyn chose the Boone County Museum of History, in her hometown of Belvidere.

“The museum was always in my mind,” she says. “It was the first place we went when he visited, so it was very significant.”

Madelyn met with Anna Pivoras, the museum’s executive director and rental manager. Together, they set out to create the wedding of Madelyn and Rob’s dreams.

“Anna and her staff were super easy to work with,” she says. “They allowed us to store decorations on site and were very helpful and accommodating while we were setting up. They even made a light display for us.”

By converting the museum’s Grand Gallery into a dining space, clearing the tables for a dance floor and making sure there was space for food trucks outside, the staff at the Boone County Museum of History created a seamless experience for Madelyn and Rob’s wedding. As a bonus, the museum’s exhibits were open for guests.

“Anna and her staff helped us plan a wonderful reception and made sure it was stress-free,” says Madelyn. –JT

The Love Reconnection
Byron Forest Preserve District | Byron, Ill.

Jenny and Garrett Henderson can trace their love story to middle school. Back then, they were just friends. Five years after high school, things turned romantic after Jenny messaged her old friend.

The two hit it off right away and things soon got serious. Garrett surprised Jenny with an intimate proposal at home.

“I didn’t want it to happen with us having all of the attention; it kind of just happened in the moment,” Jenny says. “It was absolutely perfect.”

Five years after they started dating, the two were married on May 7, 2021, at the Byron Forest Preserve District in Byron, Ill.

The choice in venue was an easy one, in part because it was close to home for Jenny, a member of the Byron Fire Department, and Garrett, who serves on the Byron Police Department.

The forest preserve offers several wedding packages that accommodate a couple’s needs and budget. Options range from outdoor to indoor settings like Jarrett Prairie Center.

For the Hendersons, the biggest selling point was the beautiful deck at Jarrett Prairie Center. This was one of the first weddings of the year, and the deck ensured the party would continue despite any COVID-19 restrictions.

Since it was a smaller wedding with only about 40 guests, the venue more than accommodated the couple’s needs.

“We wanted to have a smaller wedding because we wanted to make sure we’d be able to get around to everyone and thank them for coming,” Jenny says. “In the end, I thought it worked out perfectly because we were able to talk to everyone all while sharing our special day together with our loved ones.” –SA