Finding the best pizza, the best sports team, or really the best anything in Illinois is a pretty easy task-there are stories, lists and Facebook Posts almost anywhere you look.
But what about the meetings and event industry? You deserve a best of list, too!
That’s where we come in—or rather where you, our readers, come in. With your help and a record-breaking number of votes, we have now uncovered the 2015 Best of Illinois Meetings + Events.
You’ve combed through all the holiday venues you visited, the mouthwatering hors d’oeuvres you devoured, the DJs you danced to, and listed what truly stood out to you—and it’s an impressive list. Without further ado, here are the award winners for the 2015 Best of Illinois.
Believe it or not, PSAV started providing event technology to customers 75 years ago. Now, the company delivers to 1,300 venues across the globe, including in Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Here in Illinois, PSAV works exclusively with roughly 40 venues, making it a notable winner for Best Audio-Visual/Visual Presentation Provider. Mike McIlwain, president and CEO of the company, credits staying on top of the ever-changing tech universe for PSAV’s long success. “We offer everything that has to do with a meeting or event from a technology perspective,” he says. “And our people are very passionate about what they do.”
When meeting with the team at Blue Plate Catering—voted Best Catering Company (On- or Off-site)—question No. 1 will be: What’s your favorite restaurant? Ponderosa? Got it. Sunda? No problem. And, if something isn’t in its database, Blue Plate Catering has no problem customizing menus. “We’re always looking to push the boundaries of food. What’s not expected to be served is what we want to serve,” says Randal Jacobs, executive chef. Blue Plate Catering caters to over 85 venues, and is the exclusive provider at the Museum of Broadcast Communications and one of three at the Museum of Science and Industry. Sometime this year, Blue Plate Catering will move to a bigger location in Fulton Market, truly highlighting the growth of the 34-year-old company.
What’s an event without gorgeous décor and perfectly picked flowers? Really nothing more than an empty venue. Aesthetics are important, and Best Event Décor/Florist Kehoe Designs takes this seriously 20 years after first opening. But matching tablecloths and drapes doesn’t even come close to what the company does. Recent examples of Kehoe Designs’ work include a bat mitzvah with graffiti sprayed across the walls and a life-size soccer net fitted across a staircase. “There is a story in event design, and the experience is everything in order to be memorable,” says Tom Kehoe, founder and president.
With locations across the country and 29 years of experience under its belt, BBJ Linen knows its stuff and, for that, the company takes home Best Rental Service Provider. The company provides customers with table linen, glass chargers, chair décor and more, but also specializes in customs designs, giving clients literally anything they can dream up. “We have an expert custom team to create any oneof- a-kind wish,” says Laura Rupp, marketing and communications manager.
Aries Charter Transportation can get you from point A to point B quickly and safely. And that’s important because with no ride you have no guests. The Best Transportation winner has a variety of options, including sedans, SUVs, limousines, Sprinters, minibuses, motor coaches, party buses for charters, one-way transfer trips, long-distance rides and more. Each vehicle selection ranges in size from one passenger all the way up to 57 passengers. With two decades of experience, the company is sure to drive you in the right direction.
Dave Calzaretta, owner of Magnificent Events, Best Entertainment (Performer or Talent Agency) winner, started out in the industry in 1998 when he created the cover band Maggie Speaks, which has performed over 2,500 shows. Magnificent Events books 2,000 shows a year, so it’s safe to say he’s somewhat of a pro. “I think we have a unique perspective because we come from a performer mentality,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate to travel all over the globe, and that brings a really good perspective of what does and doesn’t work.” Magnificent Events services include custom shows, event planning and almost any form of entertainment you can imagine— from a cappella to tribute acts and zydeco.
Cara and Scott Nava opened commercial and event photography company Carasco Photography 12 years ago, inspired by the co-founders’ interest in documentary photography. Since then, the couple has enjoyed an abundance of success, including winning this year’s Best Photography/Videography category and previously being featured in a number of news outlets such as the New York Times, Glamour, NBC Chicago, Chicago magazine and Inside Weddings magazine. “Capturing unique moments and environments keeps our work interesting and challenging,” says Cara. “Each project is an opportunity to create something new.”
Take one part lacrosse, one part hockey and one part basketball, throw in bumper cars for good measure, mix it all together and you get WhirlyBall, this year’s Best Team-Building Activity. Created in the early ‘60s in Salt Lake City, the game is played with two teams that compete against each other by shooting a whiffle ball at the goal all while navigating individual bumper cars. It’s great for groups big and small since Chicago’s Bucktown location can accommodate anywhere from 10 to 1,000 people. “Companies that come to us for team-building, walk away with a newfound camaraderie within their organization,” says Adam Elias, director of business development. “WhirlyBall does an excellent job of bringing a group of people together.”
The Support Systems
The passion that Visit Champaign County employees have for the area shines through in the everyday work they do, from helping planners select the perfect venue to providing welcome bags and informational materials to attendees. For this, and many other reasons, Visit Champaign County was voted Best Convention & Visitors Bureau Outside Chicagoland. “Visit Champaign County truly goes above and beyond to ensure that planners have a smooth and successful experience hosting their events in our community,” says Leah Longueville, director of sales for the CVB. “Our staff is not only knowledgeable about our area, but are also extremely passionate about the community.”
In 2014, Chicago saw 50.17 million domestic and overseas visitors, an increase of 3.5 percent over 2013. A large part of that can be attributed to the work done by Choose Chicago, the multitime winner for Best Convention & Visitors Bureau in Chicagoland. Its steadfast efforts include marketing the revamps and launches that are happening across the area. In 2015, 2,200 hotel rooms were added and 2016 will see an additional number of venue, hotel and restaurant openings. That includes Duck Duck Goat from Stephanie Izard—the first female winner on Top Chef—and Cruz Blanca, a brewery from famed chef Rick Bayless.
360 Destination Group Chicago may be a seasoned veteran—the company opened in California in 1978 and Chicago in 2013—but it’s still just as fresh and relevant as it was 38 years ago. “We continually strive to provide a creative and collaborative environment that excites our customers, retains employees and challenges our competitors,” says Michelle Castady, director of sales. The Best Destination Management Company (DMC) provides myriad options for its customers, including teambuilding activities, shuttles and transportation and live entertainment.
The Classic Spots
The longest continuously operating hotel in the U.S., the Palmer House, A Hilton Hotel boasts just a wee bit of history, founded in 1871 and becoming a renegade of sophistication and class after the Great Chicago Fire. Winning Best Hotel with Meeting/Event Space (More than 350 Guest Rooms), Director of Catering and Events Detraiter Love credits the “overwhelming artistic and architectural majesty that is pervasive throughout the hotel” as just one reason it stands out from other properties in Illinois. As a meeting and event venue, the Palmer House has more than 130,000 square feet of space, including four ballrooms, that can hold up to 1,500 people.
For Hotel Arista, the Best Hotel with Meeting/Event Space (Less than 350 Guest Rooms), it’s all about customer service with a laid-back vibe in a stunning environment. “We try to say we’re the fun side of luxury,” says Barb Hocker, director of sales and marketing. “It’s not pretentious; everybody is approachable. We play down the formality and focus more on what’s great—the guest.” The hotel boasts 11,500 square feet of meeting and event space, including a Grand Ballroom for up to 350 guests and the Cyprus Room, which has a terrace offering panoramic views of all of the surrounding area of Naperville.
Seasons 52 is a new entrant this year, winning Best Private Dining Space in a Restaurant. As one might infer from the name, the hearty American-style menus at Seasons 52 (which has locations across the country) change with the seasons. It’s a huge part of the Chicago locale’s success, says Managing Partner James Mcgann. “With our seasonal approach and custom menus, guests know they can relax and celebrate their special moments here,” he says. The Chicago stop has four setup options for events, ranging in space from eight to 64 guests.
Only 17 miles from downtown Chicago, the Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center has the benefit of being conveniently close to the urban metropolis, but also feels worlds away with 150 acres of Auduboncertified land and an 18-hole golf course. The Best Conference or Resort Venue, which underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation last fall, has more than 40,000 square feet of space, including a year-round, outdoor, 5,400-squarefoot pavilion that overlooks the fairway. “Due to rebranding as well as renovations and sales efforts within the area, Oak Brook Hills Resort is back on the map,” says Nathan Karsten, director of sales and marketing. “Our goal is to make this [venue] a top Midwest destination for business and leisure travel.”
With all that the city of Chicago has to offer, it’s easy to forget the rest of Illinois has just as many cultural, beautiful and unique spots. Galena’s Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa, voted Best Venue Outside Chicagoland, is just one fine example of the beauty away from the city limits. The 37-year-old resort can host events anywhere from 10 to 600 guests, with 15,000 square feet of space that comes with floor-to-ceiling windows to truly take in the beauty. “There are a lot of resorts people can go to in Chicago,” says Colin Sanderson, director of sales and marketing. “But as far as we’re concerned, we are second to none.”
The Fresh Ideas
Not quite a year old, the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel was voted Best New Venue, an irony of sorts considering the building itself dates back 100-plus years. Originally built in 1893—just in time for the Columbian Exposition—owners wanted to provide a setting for athletic, business and social activities. The property eventually shut its doors in 2007, named one of the country’s 11 most endangered places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But, in 2013, a number of financiers got together to bring the building back to life. Now, groups can host events for 12 to 500 in a variety of event spaces, including The Tank and Stagg Court, the building’s original swimming pool and gymnasium. Says Vicki Poplin, hotel director of sales and marketing: “The Chicago Athletic Association Hotel is truly set apart by the history of the building itself, and it’s this history that lends itself to the diversity of spaces and experiences awaiting inside.”
Much to the dismay of the city of Chicago, Café Spiaggia (an offshoot of the Michelinstarred Spiaggia from Tony Mantuano) closed its doors last May, only to return two months later in July 2015. In that short time, major changes occurred with not only a complete revamp of the interior, but also a total overhaul of the menu, earning it the title of Best Renovation. The Italian restaurant’s dazzling new private event space is its crown point situated above the main floor and seating up to 300 guests. “Café Spiaggia now offers modern, beautiful décor and an updated menu, but maintains the same service and authentic roots,” Mantuano says.
The Outside-the-Box Venues
The University of Chicago isn’t all books, classes and studies—the campus knows how to have a little fun, too, earning the Best College or University Venue title. Eight event spaces reside in Ida Noyes Hall, which has expansive views of the Midway Plaisance and a maximum capacity of 310 people. An on-site event team can help you with everything from furniture setup to A/V equipment; it also has a number of preferred caterers, including Blue Plate Catering, another winner this year.
One of the largest science museums in the world, the Museum of Science and Industry was voted Best Historic or Cultural Venue. Here, event packages allow planners to incorporate special exhibits, including touring a WWII submarine, navigating a mirror maze and experiencing a whirling tornado. The almost 83-year-old museum, which has more than 35,000 artifacts, can hold up to 12,000 guests in seven separate spaces, making its history and sheer size stand out from other venues in Chicago, says Sodexo Marketing Manager Stan Hansen. “MSI provides an engaging, vibrant and memorable atmosphere for any special event,” he says.
Every year, more than 550,000 people visit the Adler Planetarium to view its shows, interactive exhibits and stellar collections. That alone is enough reason to celebrate at the Best Holiday Party Venue, which also offers science activities, museum speakers and workshops, and catering from Food For Thought for events of up to 1,200 people. “The Adler Planetarium is more than just a museum or a typical event space,” says Elizabeth Gordon, director of special events and initiatives. “We constantly strive to push the boundaries for our event clients to create memories that will last a lifetime.”
Located smack dab in the middle of River North, The Underground Chicago wins Best Nightlife Event Space. The venue officially opened in 2006 with a military-style theme, but in 2013 the team behind Rockit Ranch Productions put it through a complete revamp, doubling Underground’s size and making it what it is today—a stunning speakeasy. Arturo Gomez, president and partner of Rockit Ranch, says the reason for Underground’s success is its employees. “[Our events team] is made up of visionaries and extremely creative people, especially when it comes to working with clients.” The capacity for the venue is 450 people and it can be set up in a number of ways—including runways for fashions shows, stages for live performances or just a simple cocktail reception.
Most of Chicago’s outdoor venues are hampered by the weather—but ROOF on theWit is one great exception. With a retractable, year-round feature, this year’s Best Outdoor or Rooftop Venue can host any event, regardless of the temperature. Groups can choose from three designated spaces or rent the entire terrace, which has room for 300 and comes with impeccable scenery. “Our location really helps us out,” says Erica Poppe, senior director of restaurant sales. “We’re right in the thick of everything and really easy to get to, and you can’t beat the view.”
While Chicago may be a city divided when it comes to its baseball teams, it seems they can agree on one thing—and that’s voting Wrigley Field as Best Sports Venue. The stadium, which can host everything from corporate outings and trade shows to company picnics and cocktail receptions, is one of the oldest ballparks in the country. But don’t let its age deter you— renovations are currently underway to restore and expand it. “Wrigley Field is an iconic venue that is known as one of Chicago’s top tourist attractions,” says Alison Miller, Chicago Cubs senior director, marketing. “It really is the best venue to celebrate any occasion.”