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Rehearsal Dinners

Every detail is arranged, from the appetizers to the cake, limos to champagne. The groomsmen and bridesmaids know their cues and you’re poised for your walk down the aisle to meet your groom.

But that’s tomorrow. Tonight is the rehearsal dinner (also called the groom’s dinner), during which the two families and wedding party gather for an evening to send you and your groom into your special day with blessings and laughter.

“A lot of brides say the rehearsal dinner is the most fun,” says planner Nancy Flottmeyer of Weddings by Nancy in LaCrosse, because “it’s truly about the people closest to them.” Traditionally, the evening centers on dinner, but it’s up to you to personalize the meal with unique, themed activities.

“Make it clever,” Flottmeyer suggests. “A picnic or a backyard barbecue, or pizza at a bed and breakfast. Play volleyball on the beach. Make sure it reflects your personality.”

Brides should keep in mind, however, that the night before the big day can be tiring. “Keep it simple for you and for your guests. Put your rehearsal near where you’ll be,” advises Jayme Galanos of Beyond Elegant Events in Sun Prairie. “You don’t want to tax guests who may have traveled that day. You don’t want to do any more work than you have to.”

Creative rehearsal dinners
There are lots of ways to keep it simple and meaningful. Wisconsin traditions are perfect for this more casual event, as every area of the state has local hot spots. Even the most seemingly ordinary towns can hold personal significance—the bowling alley where you met, the Mexican restaurant where he proposed, the yacht or golf club where your grandfather was a member.

One couple created an outdoor movie night in a park, Flottmeyer recalls. As family and friends munched popcorn on blankets, a film of the bride and groom’s love story projected on a screen, creating a simple, casual and meaningful night for all.

“A few years ago, rehearsals were as fancy as the wedding,” Galanos says. “Now, not so much. Your guests can mingle and get to know each other better in a more relaxed setting.”

“The rehearsal event is also a good way to achieve a compromise,” she adds. If the wedding is indoors but you love nature, find an outdoor rehearsal dinner site. If the wedding is formal, make the groom’s dinner casual. Find a way to honor your interests—Harleys or hunting, film or fine arts. “It’s an opportunity to showcase part of yourselves,” says Flottmeyer.

Some venues offer built-in entertainment. For example, if you time things just right, your guests can watch truffles being made at Obsession Chocolate’s Eau Claire conference room, which features a big window overlooking the production process. Get even more hands-on with a chocolate-making class or a wine/beer and truffle tasting party.

All about the food
“Guests come in and out so fast for a wedding,” Galanos says. “You want them to get an experience of coming here.” Galanos is seeing more couples incorporate a beloved Friday-night Wisconsin tradition—the fish fry—into their rehearsal.

Every town boasts its favorite locale—a VFW, supper club or corner bar—that serves up local lore along with delicious food. For instance, Door County is known for its fish boil—whitefish and red potatoes cooked outdoors in a pot over an open fire. The family-style meal can be eaten outdoors or indoors, set on linen tablecloths or picnic tables.

Much of traditional Wisconsin fare tends to focus on German food, cheese and beer. One of Flottmeyer’s brides reserved an entire restaurant for her rehearsal dinner and served a smorgasbord of quintessential Wisconsin foods—bratwurst with sauerkraut and buns, pretzels and mustard, deep-fried cheese curds, and, of course, cold beer.

Brew and wine
Many Wisconsin microbreweries offer tours and meals, from South Shore Brewery and Deep Water Grille in Ashland to Leinenkugel’s in Chippewa Falls to Sand Creek Brewing in Black River Falls. Madison is home to the Great Dane and Capital Brewery, and Milwaukee has the Lakefront Brewery. If a glass of wine is more your style, Wollersheim in Prairie du Sac and Red Oak, located in Sturgeon Bay, offer wine tastings.

Galanos once worked with a couple of beer connoisseurs who held their rehearsal dinner at a local microbrewery. “It’s fun. You can show off the beer gardens,” she says.

Another bride’s future father-in-law suggested holding the rehearsal dinner at the Pearl Street Brewery. “We went one evening for happy hour and fell in love with it,” says Katie Loeffler. “It’s off the beaten path, in the old La Crosse footwear building.” With live music and a view of the beer vats, it was the perfect venue for Loeffler and her fiancé Andy.

For their October 1, 2010, event, the Loefflers rented the tasting room, brought in pizza and booked a local band. “We were looking for something laid-back,” says Loeffler. “We wanted to highlight the La Crosse area since a lot of our friends came from Minneapolis.”

Rustic rehearsal dinners
Dotted throughout the Wisconsin countryside are gathering spots like Round Barn Lodge in Spring Green, The Enchanted Barn in Hillsdale or Schuster’s Farm near Cottage Grove, to name just a few. Some venues offer activities such as apple-picking, corn mazes and hay rides—not to mention the complimentary sunsets, birds and cornfields. If you choose a rehearsal location off the beaten path, be sure to alert guests about appropriate wardrobe. “You don’t necessarily want to be in an evening gown,” says Galanos.

Imagine the possibilities: a rustic dinner on linens in the romantically lit round barn of Schuster’s, a lively evening with a local mariachi or polka band, or even a night of square dancing. Polka is Wisconsin’s state dance, after all.

Or consider a location like Madison’s Olbrich Botanical Gardens, which offers an impressive list of approved caterers and many options for music, dancing or simply wandering the gardens. “We recently held a rehearsal dinner on a Thursday night,” says special events associate Katy Plantenberg. The calendar books quickly, so plan in advance and be flexible.

If you plan to marry near Spring Green, tour Taliesin, a home designed by world-famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Afterwards, host dinner in the Riverview Terrace Café, open May through October.

If you’ve got Packer fans in the bunch (and who doesn’t?), and you’re near Green Bay, tour the Packer Hall of Fame at Lambeau Field. Then head to Brett Favre’s Steakhouse for its crowd-pleasing surf-and-turf menu.

Restaurants around the state offer delicious entrées featuring local ingredients. At the historic 1855 mansion and stable of Quivey’s Grove in Madison, guests can meet in the Stable Grill or the outdoor bar on the lawn for cocktails and appetizers before adjourning to a private dining room in the Stone House.

By train or boat
For a night on the water, check out the Lake Geneva Cruise Line, which serves hors d’oeuvres, buffets or sit-down meals, and full bar service. Its fleet of historic yachts includes the Polaris, built in 1898, and the Louise, from 1902. Polished brass, mahogany and vintage steam whistles give the boats a romantic turn-of-the-century feel.

Wisconsin also boasts several historic dinner trains. Vintage diesel-powered cars of the Osceola & St. Croix Valley Railway wind through the scenic north woods, while the 14-mile dinner trip on the East Troy Electric Railroad can be customized to include live music, your own décor or a stopover at the quaint Elegant Farmer market. Looking for a chapel car? Check out the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad in Spooner.

“We charter the cars and serve dinner anytime during the year,” says Don Meyer, general manager of North Freedom’s Mid-Continent Railway Museum. “We go slow during dinner,” he adds with a laugh. The cozy diner and business car are made for intimacy. “We try to flex our schedule and make it affordable,” Meyer says. “The fun part is the ambiance as you enter a train, a step-back-in-time experience.”

Ultimately, the rehearsal dinner is about being together. As you plan this special event, take Galanos’ tip to heart: Keep it simple. And remember to add your own personality. “Treat it like a mini wedding reception but with a whole different feel,” Flottmeyer says. Whether you opt for a VFW fish fry, dinner at an upscale club or a hoedown in a barn, it will be an evening everyone will remember.

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