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Chicago Wedding Guide

Create your perfect day with 35 handpicked places to shop and celebrate in and around the city.

Getting married soon? Congratulations! Now the hard part: planning. Chicago’s reporters have done some of the legwork for you, interviewing professional planners, photographers, and travel agents for advice on four types of weddings, plus suggesting venues that serve proper sit-down dinners, dresses and suits that flatter, musicians that will keep the dance floor full, and more. These recommendations don’t include everything that goes into the big day—the location of the ceremony, for example, is highly personal and depends on faith and family tradition—but they cover the major stuff.

Plus, one of our editors shares what she learned from her wedding, and we dig into the expenses that can surpise you at your reception.

Photos: (Flowers) Martha Williams, (Models) T. Harrison Hillman  Stylist (Flowers) Melissa Elias
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What I Learned from My Wedding

A Chicago editor shares her recent experience, for better or for worse

My engagement started with an alarm. Alex, my soon-to-be husband-to-be, triggered my house’s security system when he sneaked in during the middle of the day to set up for his proposal. It took mere moments after I got the alert to confirm, via text, that the interloper was not a burglar but rather my beloved. It took mere seconds after that to raise my suspicions that this would be the day.

Lauren Williamson Chicago magazine
The author on her wedding day   Photo: Katie Kett

An alarm, it turns out, is a rather apt way to kick off a months-long process of planning a big party that won’t be deeply embarrassing in 25 years. After all, you may love Carly Rae Jepsen now, but do you want to forever associate her with your first dance? (For the record, we went with a spare Regina Spektor cover of the John Lennon song “Real Love.”)

Alex and I got married last May at a golf club in west suburban Wheaton. It was, based on the criteria outlined on the following pages, a creative wedding—albeit one with a DIY advantage. My dad, a jeweler and ceramicist, threw our centerpieces on his potter’s wheel and stayed up late into the night planting them with orchids, ferns, and moss in our garage. My mom, a jeweler and collage artist, crafted our wedding invitations out of antique prints. Together they made our wedding rings. My future mother-in-law, a master sewer, fashioned the tablecloths for our rehearsal dinner. And Alex and I were the de facto wedding planners.

All of which means we learned a lot about the process—the first thing being that everyone loves to give wedding advice. So now I, too, will pass on some of what I discovered between getting engaged and writing the final thank-you note.

  • Trial runs are important. Three weeks before the wedding, I tried out the makeup artist I’d hired at a fancy-pants salon in Hinsdale. And thank God for that. I wanted to look like Ivanka Trump; I ended up resembling the Donald, with orange foundation caked on so thick my head appeared stuck on a different body. Next.
  • Don’t get a $5 haircut the week of the wedding. To you dudes: This is not the time to scrimp on personal grooming. Alex, of course, wanted to look his best, so he had his hair cut the Tuesday before game day. It’s not a great idea to get a trim that close to a big event; it’s a worse idea to go to a bargain shop. He came home missing half an eyebrow. Luckily, you need a magnifying glass to notice in photos. But still. Half. An. Eyebrow.
  • Have a backup plan if your dress is wildly uncomfortable. I was willing to suffer for beauty when it came to my dress—until two hours into the reception, when I begged my dad for his ChapStick to soothe my lace-chafed armpits. In retrospect, I should have worn the show-stopper for the ceremony and dinner and then changed into a flirty, functional number for dancing—maybe even reworn my rehearsal dinner dress, which was basically a white sack with sleeves. (Hey, it was a cute sack.)
  • No one’s going to think you’re nuts if you break with tradition. Cue “Free to Be . . . You and Me”: Unconventional moments will be among the most special. Because I’m an only child, my parents and I are ridiculously close. My mom couldn’t resist the urge to rush up and join the father-daughter dance. Afterward, a dear family friend told her, “It didn’t seem complete until you stepped in.”
  • Stuff will go wrong. It won’t ruin your night. Like road trips and childbirth, weddings don’t unfold exactly as you plan. But (Zen alert) let it go. One of the final, enduring images from our wedding came when the top tier of our cake, boxed up to freeze for our first anniversary, slid off the cart. It’s a little lopsided now, and we had to toss the part that spilled onto the floor. But so what? It’ll still taste delicious.

Here’s one more lesson learned: On the big day, you won’t be thinking about all the months of scheduling, primping, negotiating, and check writing. You’ll be immersed in an experience unlike any other: uniting with your one and only, surrounded by the people who love you most. Everything will be more than OK—it will be transcendent. Just don’t forget that ChapStick.

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Anatomy of a Bill

Sticker shock is to be expected when you look at reception venues. But the real surprise is how service fees and taxes can bump the tab significantly higher than what’s quoted in brochures. Here’s a breakdown of what goes into a typical reception, this one at the Hilton Orrington in Evanston on a Saturday night in October 2014.

Open bar for 213 guests (including wine at dinner) $8,520
Soda for four kids $48
Three bartenders $300
Porcini-crusted chicken breasts for 178 guests
Dinner price includes dessert buffet (in lieu of cake), tables, chairs, linens, votive candles, and waitstaff.
Gnocchi with porcini mushrooms for 35 guests $2,275
Meals for four kids $100
Meals for photographer and DJ $58
Hotel service fee (20 percent of the above, excl. bartenders)
Negotiated from 23 percent
Evanston sales tax (9 percent, excl. service fee and bartenders)
Sales tax in Chicago is 10.25 percent.
Evanston liquor tax (6 percent of liquor)
Be alert—some towns have quirky local taxes.
Grand total for a six-hour reception $31,075


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