Conference centers and hotels are easy to find—and easy to rent. While they are practical and versatile, they also tend to lack that oomph factor that really wows guests. But what if you could stand apart by hosting your next meeting or event in a boat club, pingpong emporium or a TV show soundstage? We’ve done the work for you by scouting these 10 unique locations, all of which prove there’s more that just banquet space in Illinois.
For History Buffs
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Abraham Lincoln may be long gone, but that doesn’t mean you can’t experience what life was like when he was alive.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield (the city was his one-time home) takes you back to the 19th century with a wealth of artifacts, comprehensive history lessons and professional actors that talk about life on the prairie in 1863.
With 20,000 square feet of event space, the museum offers four private venues within the library for groups of 20 to 250 and two in the museum for up to 250 guests. The Plaza and Union Theater are two venues that are available for evening events.
The designated caterer, Secret Recipes, provides all food and beverage, including alcohol. A licensed caterer is also allowed with a 25 percent surcharge on the rental total.
“The combination of all that the library and museum has to offer is what makes [us] so unique,” says Britta Brackney, facilities rental and promotions manager. “The client and guests are the sole visitors, and each event is sure to be [different] …with an educational and entertaining experience.”
For Budding Designers
Ola la! IJORERE
With a background in architecture, Ola Morin-Muhammed made sure there were a lot of special details in her new event space, Ola la! IJORERE, such as floor-to-ceiling arched windows, caged pendant lighting, white fanback folding chairs and a custom rustic wood dining table. But beyond that, the raw space is open to interpretation.
“It’s very interchangeable,” MorinMuhammed says of the downtown Elgin loft that has open-ended ductwork to make it feel even more convertible. “We can do just about anything you can imagine.”
The 2,000-square-foot loft space welcomes 60 for a sit-down meal and up to 75 for a cocktail reception. Morin-Muhammed is in talks with building owners to expand even more.
While the space itself is grand, and also offers a portable projector and free Wi-Fi, it’s the tiny details like the hand-painted sink bowls in the bathrooms that make it one-ofa-kind.
“[Ola la! IJORERE] has that downtown Chicago vibe, but it’s located in historic Elgin,” Morin-Muhammed says. “It’s like an unexpected gem.”
While hosting your event at Cinespace, you just may run into Taraji P. Henson, Sophia Bush or Taylor Kinney. At the very least you’ll be spending time in the same space where they film their respective television shows, Empire, Chicago P.D. and Chicago Fire.
The filming lot, in Douglas Park, is at the site of a former steel plant and encompasses more than 1 million square feet of property across 60 acres of land. Twenty-eight soundstages and one ballroom (for 50 to 5,000 people) are available for rent. An outdoor area is another opportunity that can host festivals for thousands.
Aside from its Hollywood ties, another draw of the Cinespace campus is its ability to be imagined into anything a planner is looking for—it’s a complete blank slate covered in neutral colors so there’s not a lot that would conflict when it comes to décor or themes.
“There are so many options within our space to create something special,” says Director of Events Karen Banks. “I think that’s what people are most attracted to.”
For the Water Works
Danville Boat Club
While the Danville Boat Club is geared towards mariner members only, that doesn’t mean outside parties can’t enjoy all that the nearly 80-year-old property has to offer. When not organizing internal events, the waterfront venue can host up to 150 people.
For nonmembers, facility rentals are quite affordable, ranging from $100 for up to four hours and $300 for five or more hours. Its size, though, is what makes it stand out from other venues in the surrounding area, says Club Manager Michele Ryan.
“We’re small enough that when you come in, you don’t feel like you’re in a huge, cold banquet hall,” she says. “It’s a warm, inviting atmosphere.” Views of the lake also help. They are nothing short of breathtaking when seen from the outdoor deck that holds 60 people.
For the Great Outdoors
Whether it’s 90 degrees and sunny or 5 degrees and snowy, Independence Grove is always open.
“The views are amazing as the sun goes down,” says Jeff Ware, director of operations for Catering by Michaels, which manages the property. “It’s just as gorgeous when it’s snowing in the winter.”
The massive, 1,100-acre forest preserve property in Libertyville is just off the tollway, but its rare seclusion provides a lush, tranquil setting that makes you feel like you’re the only one around for miles.
A number of unique venues on the grounds are available for rent, including the popular 300-person Audubon Hall with rustic design, including a fireplace, and panoramic floor-toceiling windows that overlook the preserves and a manmade lake. There are also seasonal options including North Bay Pavilion for picnics, Native Garden for outdoor ceremonies, a tented Grassy Knoll, Observation Deck for impeccable sunset views and a beach that’s open June 1 through Labor Day.
All food requests go through Catering by Michaels—the only caterer in North America that is both green restaurant certified and green seal certified—which fits in with the natural beauty of the Grove.
“It’s like the crown jewel of the Lake County Forest Preserve District,” Ware says. “You’re in a whole other world.”
For the Rebels
Jail Hill Inn
Most people want to leave jail, but Matthew Carroll wants to bring you in.
In January 2015, Carroll bought a dilapdated building in Galena that once served as the Jo Daviess County jail for nearly 100 years.
Within 12 months, he gutted, renovated and then opened Jail Hill Inn, which features six suites that are each 800 square feet.
“Galena was lacking an in-town luxury property,” he says. “It has very nice hotels, but I wanted this space to be totally different than anything else.”
And totally unique it is. When guests check in, they receive a bottle of champagne and a box of chocolates. Gourmet breakfast is served every morning. And in the afternoon there is wine and cheese in the lobby.
No, jail this is definitely not.
Large event space is still in the works, but Carroll notes for now there is a dining room that can host 15 to 20 people. An additional 1,000-square-foot deck overlooking a grassy courtyard also has space for up to 20. Full buyouts are also available.
“We’re definitely quaint,” says Carroll. “My favorite attribute is the history of the building and the architecture. It’s such a fortress.”
For Year-Round Summer Flings
Lake County Fairgrounds
The Lake County Fairgrounds are probably most well-known for an annual summer fair, but the rest of the year it’s fully operational, too.
“Part of our character is that we bridge the architecture of Lake County with the farm area all around us, but we also meet modernday needs,” says John Maguire, director of business development and marketing.
Conveniently situated in Grayslake, halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago, the plot offers 165 acres of land. The main attraction is a 65,000-square-foot expo hall, which can hold anywhere from 3,500 to 6,000 guests, and has hosted everything from boat shows to indoor carnivals and concerts.
Within the hall, there are two meeting rooms with a total capacity of 125. A number of outdoor spaces dot the property, including open-air barns, a motor sports arena and green spaces; there are more than 4,000 parking spaces as well.
Bauer’s Catering is the official food provider for the fairgrounds, but outside vendors can be used with written authorization from the Lake County Fairgrounds Association.
For Ping Pong Enthusiasts
Susan Sarandon is an award-winning actress recognized for her work in such movies as Thelma and Louis and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but she’s probably less known for being a huge pingpong enthusiast.
A few years ago, she partnered with a couple of Olympic hopefuls to co-found SPiN, a pingpong social club. It debuted in New York City and most recently expanded to Chicago where players of any skill can get behind a table.
“[SPiN] is an amazing, unique experience that combines the sport of pingpong with amazing lighting and design,” says Lisa Leslie, director of sales for the Chicago location. Like other SPiN spots, it’s decorated with the work of local artists to “create an amazing atmosphere.”
The 18,000-square-foot building can hold up to 800 people and pingpong tables can be rolled out any way you please. Even better, actual professionals (yes, there are pros) are available on-site who can help lead your group in different team-building tournaments. Food and drink packages are also an option.
If you can’t get away from the office, you can also rent SPiN’s equipment, which they will set up for you anywhere around the city.
“The options here are literally endless,” says Leslie.
For Other Sports Fans
At Villa Olivia, in Bartlett, sports are yearround. Skiers and snowboarders hit the slopes in the winter and golfers take to the green in warmer months.
With all that’s going on outdoors, there’s respite in an indoor chalet set right in the middle of the park district grounds. It features floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook all the natural surrounding beauty.
“I love the views,” says Jessica McDougall, banquet sales coordinator. “We have a lot of windows, so you won’t feel like you’re in a box.”
Groups from 20 to 320 can be easily accommodated in the banquet space and can add on golf or ski activities to their event. Catering is done strictly through the venue, which specializes in American-style cuisine.
For McDougall, the best part of the space is the way its flexibility.
“We have this neutral décor that’s almost like a chameleon,” she says. “You can have the glitz and glamour or that rustic, burlap feel.”
For Country Charm
Wagner Farm Heritage Center
Many venues and restaurants tout themselves as farm-to-table, but Wagner Farm Heritage Center truly is, located on a working dairy farm in Glenview where livestock actively roam the property.
“One of my favorite things [about Wagner] is how peaceful and untouched it is,” says Andrea Just, event and rental coordinator. “It’s a beautiful environment to be a part of.”
The venue, which is part of a living history museum, can hold up to 120 guests for a seated dinner and 200 for a cocktail-style reception. If overflow is necessary, there is a courtyard area that can be tented, too.
Events can start two hours after closing time, which is 3 p.m. on Sundays and 5 p.m. all other days of the week, and they must conclude by 11 p.m. All rentals, food and beverage are offered through Catered by Design.
Wagner’s farm-to-table connection is ideal for corporate groups, providing a breath of fresh air that might not be typical in the working world.
“With businesses, [a lot of people are stuck] in cubicles,” says Just. “It’s nice to have a chance to get away and be out in actual green space.”