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Illinois Originals

The Land of Lincoln is steeped in history, from its ties to the 16th president of the United States to its beautiful location in the Great Lakes region of the country. There are plenty of unusual venues in Illinois to host a meeting or event. Here are a few that tap into not only the state’s vast history but its future as well.


Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum


Event planners love to harness the lore surrounding Abraham Lincoln by hosting events at his presidential library and museum.

“The centerpiece of the museum is a big, open plaza, and on one side is a re-creation of the log cabin where he lived as a boy, and the other is a scale replica of the White House,” said Chris Wills, communications director for the library and museum. The replica stands 40 feet tall and “is a really visually impressive place to gather.”

There, attendees can explore the president’s life, see his law office as an older man and learn about his years in the White House and the personal tragedy he endured, he said.

Both the library and museum are available for special events, like dinners, luncheons and receptions. It can hold events for as few as 12 people for a corporate board meeting to several hundred for a cocktail reception in the main plaza.

No matter what the event, the plaza, with guests seated in front of the White House, “is a real show-stopper for people to be there,” Wills said.

The site works closely with a local caterer to provide everything from light hors d’oeuvres to a full sit-down meal.

If guests walk through the front of the White House, they will find replicas of rooms from the Lincoln White House. If planners want their event attendees to learn more about Lincoln’s life, the museum will provide a scholar to speak to the group, and the museum’s exhibits can be made open to them during their event.

Independence Grove Forest Preserve


Independence Grove Forest Preserve is a former quarry that was turned into a 1,100-acre botanical garden and recreation area and offers many event spaces with amazing views of the lake, beach and wooded areas.

“What people like when they come here is the openness,” said Stewart Glass, general manager of Catering by Michaels, which handles the event facilities at the preserve. “You are not in a corporate meeting space with a drop ceiling. You are not in a hotel where, when you get out of your hotel room, there are big, wide hallways with hotel carpeting.”

Between the site’s visitor center and large outdoor pavilion, the preserve can host events for up to 550 people. Planners can use Audubon Hall, which can be broken down into four smaller rooms; the foyer; or the veranda and north patio, both of which overlook the preserve’s lake and marina.

“What people love here is that all the rooms have almost floor-to-ceiling glass that overlooks our veranda and our lake,” he said. Many groups take advantage of the beautiful outdoor location to participate in team-building activities like sand volleyball, bocce ball, croquet or scavenger hunts. They also can rent kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards and pedal boats at the marina, or rent bikes, quadricycles and adaptive trikes for guests to take advantage of the preserve’s five miles of paths.

The 3,000-square-foot outdoor pavilion can be used for corporate picnics or dinners and is a good location to host outdoor team-building activities, said Glass.

Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch


Mark and Julie Hardy wanted a good way to market their Christmas tree farm, so 24 years ago, they flew to Alaska to buy a herd of reindeer.

“Tourism started flooding in,” said Julie, and soon people were coming out solely to see the reindeer.

The couple ended up building a large banquet hall with a Wild West saloon theme to host the thousands of visitors who come to the ranch annually. Private groups of up to 130 people can book the banquet hall year-round. The ranch’s specialty is a chuck-wagon barbecue served on tin plates with bandannas as napkins.

The ranch is open to the general public from September through December. The rest of the year is dedicated to private parties and group reservations. The ranch hosts 45,000 visitors a year, many of them coming in on mystery bus tours to meet the reindeer.

“In a zoo, you don’t get to get close to them,” said Julie. On the ranch’s reindeer tour, guests get to hear the story of how the reindeer herd was shipped to Illinois from Alaska in large shipping crates on Delta Airlines and even get a kiss from one by placing a graham cracker in their mouths.

Julie said she and her husband didn’t know what they were getting into when they first got the idea of raising reindeer.

“I grew up with a cat, and my hubby used to milk cows, so he had some livestock experience,” she said. “But reindeer are not cows. We had to figure out their health care and feed program. They are unique in their own species, so we had to get that right.”

Viper Alley


Viper Alley was built as a concert venue and event space. A little more than six years ago, it converted to a private event venue.

The 15,000-square-foot building includes six bowling lanes, a separate private dining room and an expanded showroom with a stage. The showroom is well suited for meetings, luncheons and dinners and can hold up to 650 guests.

Laurie Cohn, director of catering and events for Viper Alley, said the site has its own in-house chef who has devised a diverse catering menu that is all made in-house.

“There’s no facility fee here,” Cohn said. “That sets us apart from many places.” Any rental includes tables, chairs and linens.

The venue specializes in corporate meetings and events, holiday parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs.

“We do a food-and-beverage minimum,” she said. “As long as they meet the minimum, they get the whole space. We will customize any menu, too.”

The facility offers team-building activities such as pizza-making on the site’s wood-burning stove, game shows, live-band karaoke, murder-mystery dinners, casino nights and bowling.

Blue Sky Vineyard


At the end of the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail in southern Illinois, the Blue Sky Vineyard opened its doors in 2005. The owners had always wanted to plant a vineyard. When they found their current location, they knew they had something special.

The winery was designed to look like a Tuscan villa with stucco walls, hand-hewn beams, Portuguese tiles and carved doors. It is surrounded by 13 acres of vines. It can host events in the winery itself, but many groups prefer the Tuscan Sun Event Pavilion, which can accommodate up to 300 people.

The vineyard plays host to corporate meetings, staff appreciation parties and special events like weddings.

“What I find is really nice is when they come out here, it is not like a business meeting with suits and ties and really formal,” said Brandy Nance, marketing director for the vineyard. “When people come out here, they are taken aback. They are in awe of the scenery and the vineyard, and it seems they loosen up a little bit. They are going to work but have some fun, not that kind of mundane day-to-day grind.”

The winery typically has 20 wines available at any given time. It is very proud of its dry red wines, but it produces crisp and clean whites, semisweets and sweets as well.

“From the grape to the glass, we are invested in this product,” Nance said.

Groups that rent the event spaces can take cellar tours and vineyard tours. The venue also can educate guests about how to pair the best wine with different foods. And wine tasting is a must, with up to five wine samples available.