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Easy Zuppa Toscana: Olive Garden Copycat Recipe

These days I’m doing a lot more cooking at home. I’m not a fan of spending every day in the kitchen, so when planning a menu, I’m thinking of dishes that will yield 2 or 3 days of leftovers. Hence, I’ve been making some type of soup or chili every week.

One of my favorite soups, Zuppa Toscana, is an Olive Garden classic. It has chunks of Italian sausage, potatoes, and kale; incredible! I’m sure its the restaurant’s most famous soup. 

I know there are a lot of copycat recipes out there, but the pot I whipped up for my family this week is my favorite. I may even prefer it over Olive Gardens’. My friend Ola from Ja’dore le decor recommended adding chardonnay. Let me just say, the chardonnay is a game changer! This soup was next lever amazing!  

Jump to Recipe
Olive Garden copycat recipe for Zuppa Toscana soup
Zuppa Toscana

I highly recommend you try this Zuppa Toscana recipe. You can thank me later!

Ingredients:

1 pound bulk mild Italian sausage
5 slices bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 large white onion, diced 3 cloves fresh minced garlic
72 oz chicken broth
8 potatoes, cut into generously sized cubes
2 cup heavy cream
4-5 cups kale, I love kale so I went heavy on it. Do according to taste
6 oz Chardonnay…I estimated 6 oz because I didn’t measure

How to Make Zuppa Toscana Soup:

Cook the Italian sausage in the pot over medium-high heat until crumbly, browned, and no longer pink. Remove sausage and set aside

Prepare the bacon in the same pot as sausage over medium heat until crisp. Remove bacon…Add onions and garlic to bacon grease; cook until onions are soft and translucent.

Pour the chicken broth into the pot with the bacon and onion mixture; bring to a boil over high heat. Add the potatoes and boil until fork-tender, about 15 minutes. Add Chardonnay, Reduce the heat to medium and stir in the heavy cream and the cooked sausage. Mix in the kale and simmer until al dente.

Enjoy! Check out my recipe page for additional recipes.

Bowl of Zuppa Toscana soup with Italian sausage, kale, and potatoes.

Zuppa Toscana Soup

Servings 6

Ingredients
  

  • 1 lb Bulk Italian Sausage
  • 5 slices Bacon cut into 1/2 inch strips
  • 1 lg white onion diced
  • 4 cloves fresh garlic minced
  • 72 oz Chicken Broth
  • 8 potatoes cut into generous sized cubes
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 6 oz Chardonnay 6 oz is an estimate, I'd pour and taste and add according to desired taste
  • salt according to taste

Instructions
 

  • Cook the Italian sausage in a pot over medium heat breaking into crumbles until no longer pink. Remove sausage and set aside
  • Add sliced bacon to the same pot and cook until crisp. Remove bacon and set aside.
  • Add diced onions and garlic to the remaining bacon grease and cook until onions are soft and translucent.
  • Pour the chicken broth into the pot with the bacon and onion mixture and bring to a boil over high heat.
  • Add the potatoes and boil until tender, about 15 minutes.
  • Pour in Chardonnay and reduce heat to low-medium
  • Stir in heavy cream along with the cooked sausage
  • Mix in kale and simmer til kale is al dente
  • enjoy

Best Things to do in Chicago During December

I look forward to December in Chicago every year; not because I like the cold and snow but because of all of the activities packed into the month.  There’s so much to do in the month of December with many events being free or low cost so most can take advantage of them!  Here’s a list of can’t miss activities happening during December in the city!

Christkindle Market

Inspired by the Christkindle Market in Nuremberg, Germany, this free outdoor market takes place in Daley Plaza.    Explore German food, drinks, shopping, and entertainment thru December 24th.   You can also catch the market in Wrigleyville.  Entry into the Christkindle Market is FREE.

Dine at Time Out Market Chicago

This food and cultural market brings the best of the city under one roof with a curated mix of 18 kitchens and three bars. Further, the 50,000 square foot space includes a demonstration kitchen, event kitchen, entertainment platform with bleacher seating, and an all-season rooftop bar. Get all the details here.

One-of-a-Kind Show at The Mart

Browse hundreds of handmaid one-of-a-kind items from over 600 artists at The Mart December 5-8th!  Tickets start at $12 or choose from ticket packages starting at $18.  Pro Tip:  If you sign up for emails from some of the featured artists you can score free tickets. Shoppers will have the opportunity to meet and engage with over 600 participating artists to learn about them, their creative process, and their work while shopping art, fashion, jewelry, wood, photography, glass, furniture, home goods, pet products, bath & body, and so much more!  Everything you’re looking for in one place!

Maggie Daley Skating Ribbon

Take in the skyline as you skate the ribbon at Maggie Daley Park.  This family-friendly activity is always a highlight of winter in Chicago.

Visit the World’s Largest Starbucks Roastery Reserve

The Chicago Starbucks Reserve Roastery has five floors, including an outdoor rooftop, and spans 35,000 square feet. Guests of the roastery will enjoy specialty coffees and teas, on-premise roasters and massive coffee casks where freshly roasted beans are held. They also have bars with craft cocktails and fresh baking onsite.

Art on The Mart

This free display happens Wednesdays-Sundays at sunset.  Hang out on the Chicago River Walk as the Merchandise Mart turns into the largest digital art projector in the world.  Thirty-four projectors will showcase the works of four renowned contemporary artists during the 2-hour shows.  The Mart spans two city blocks and is over 25 stories high, don’t miss this spectacular display!

West Town Winter Fest’s Jolly Trolley

Hop on the Jolly Trolley to shop the Blocks of West Town during Winterfest on December 7th.  Over 20 retailers will feature special promotions, one-of-a-kind items, and trunk sales.  The guided tour lasts 3 hours, features all the shopping blocks and provides a “checked shopping bag” service, so you don’t have to worry about your gifts while you shop. Receive a $20 Gift Certificate when you purchase a $10 Jolly Trolley ticket.  Adult beverages are provided during the trolley ride.

ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo

The one-of-a-kind experience offers fun, free, family-oriented festivities, and hundreds of dynamic displays all under the glow of 2.5 million lights. The display begins on December 3rd. Zoolights is free entry.

Lincoln Park Zoo Lights
Photo courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo

Ride the Polar Express

Hop on board AMTRAK’s Polar Express taking off from Chicago’s Famous Union Station! This is the only time it’s acceptable to wear your pajamas in public, since guests are encouraged to come dressed in their PJs, lol.    Each 3-hour memorable ride includes live entertainment, delicious hot chocolate, a cookie, and a keepsake. Click here for tickets.

Navy Pier’s Winter Wonderfest

Winter WonderFest at Navy Pier is an annual Chicago winter event, featuring 170,000 square feet of carnival rides, giant slides, holiday-themed activities, festive carousel, inflatable rides, an Indoor Ice Skating Rink, and more. Experience thrills without the chills beginning December 6th! Get your tickets here.

Illumination:  Tree Lights at Morton Aboretorum

Walk a mile long paved path amid a multitude of colors as interactive lighting effects highlight the beauty of trees in winter. Enjoy seasonal music, stare in amazement at the ever-changing, interactive lighting designs, and warm up by a crackling fire with a cozy drink or roast marshmallows for s’mores. Click here for the calendar and tickets.

Visit the Friends Popup Experience

Could this experience be any cooler? Celebrate 25 years of Friends at the AT&T popup on the Magnificent Mile. Reminisce on your favorite episodes and maybe test your Friends knowledge during one of their trivia events. The FREE popup is open through the end of December.

Navy Pier Fireworks

Take in the New Years Eve Fireworks Show over Lake Michigan on December 31st starting at 12 a.m.  This event is free!

Navy Pier Fireworks
Photo courtesy Navy Pier

Themed Pop-Up Bars

There are a slew of festive winter-themed pop-up bars happening around the city. Here’s a list:

Apres Ski After Dark-Swiss Hotel

Woman holding a cocktail in front of festive decor at Swiss Hotel Chicago
Apres Ski Pop-Up at Swiss Hotel Chicago

Visit the Swiss Hotel’s apres’s ski pop-up bar on Fridays in December. The Presidential suite will be filled with photo-worthy festive cocktails and shot skis, a chair lift photo opp, and a live DJ! The space is stunning, a must see!

Reindeer’s at the Chit Chat Lounge

Reindeer’s will take over the basement formally home to Chit Chat Lounge (416 N Desplaines in River West) and include a brand new menu of themed holiday libations and snacks; holiday dive inspired décor, seasonal entertainment, and more. There’s a cozy upper lounge reminiscent of your grandma’s living room to chill in, but I think the incredible music blaring through the speakers may lure you to the downstairs dance floor! Open to the public Wednesday – Fridays 5 pm – 2 am, Saturdays 12 pm – 3 am, and Sundays 12 pm – 2 am through the end of the year.

Wrigleyville Pop-Ups

8 Crazy Nights

The Graystone Tavern: 3441 N. Sheffield Dec. 1 – 31 Mondays – Fridays: 4 p.m. – 2 a.m. Saturdays – 11 a.m. – 3 a.m. Sundays 11a.m.– 2 a.m.

This no-cover Hanukkah pop-up includes fun decor, food, drinks, and Schmaltz beers on tap! Classic Eastern European Jewish dishes will be served, such as matzo ball soup, latkes, and brisket.

Bad Santa Photo Shoot Pop Up

Sheffield’s: 3258 N. Sheffield , ONE DAY ONLY – Saturday, Dec. 7 – 6 p.m. – 10 p.m.

Christmas Club

Country Club: 3462 N. Clark – Nov. 20 – Jan. 1 Mondays – Thursdays: 4 p.m. – 2 a.m. Fridays – Sundays: 11 a.m. – 2 a.m.

This no-cover pop up includes two floors and appearances by Santa, as well as other various characters. Three different rooms in three different bars, and guest DJs every week.

Elf’d Up

Stretch: 3485 N. Clark Nov. 20 – Jan. 21 Tuesdays – Fridays: 5 p.m. – 2 a.m. Saturdays: 12 p.m. – 3 a.m. Sundays: 12 p.m. – 2 a.m.

This Elf movie-themed pop up will offer specialty cocktails, rotating season drafts, a themed food menu, including Buddy’s Breakfast Pasta! There will even be weekly appearances of Buddy the Elf Thursday through Saturday (anytime between 9 p.m. and 12 a.m.). Elf trivia will be on Dec. 4, 11, and 18 at 7 p.m. Buddy’s Brunch will happen every Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (The pop up will be closed Dec. 2)

Griswold’s Christmas Vacation Pop Up Bar

Houndstooth Saloon: 3369 N. Clark Nov. 17 – Feb. 9 11 a.m. – 2 a.m.

There will be Griswold and 80’s themed food, drinks, and specials, and the bar will feature Uncle Eddy’s decked out 1977 RV, and three themed rooms, The Griswold living room, the tiki Bar, and Clark’s attic. Cousin Eddie will stop by in the RV to hand out hot chocolate and cocktails on opening day, and there will be a champagne toast at midnight each night! The $5 cover goes into effect after 5pm, or you may donate a toy to Toys for Tots in lieu of the cover fee.

Jingle Junkie

Roadhouse 66: 3478 N. Clark Nov. 27 – Jan. 6 Mondays – Fridays: 10 a.m. – 2 a.m. Saturdays: 10 a.m. – 3 a.m. Sundays: 10 a.m. – 2 a.m.

This pop up will consist of a heated ski lodge-inspired patio with seasonal beers and cocktails, and festive food.

John Vincent Holiday Pop-Up Shows

Rizzo’s Bar & Inn/365-viii: 3658 N. Clark Thursday, Dec. 5th 7:30 p.m. – 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6th: 8 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12th: 7:30 p.m. – 9 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15th: 4 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 19th: 7:30 p.m. – 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 20th: 8 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 21st: 8 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 22nd: 4 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.

John Vincent is a local legendary performer, entertaining crowds of all types and varieties with his covers of Frank Sinatra, Louis B. Armstrong, Johnny Cash and more. He is also the current resident National Anthem singer for the Chicago Cubs. The December 12 pop up show will be a special Sinatra birthday performance! For guests aged 21 and older, ticket costs vary from $10 – $160. $10 offers standing room admission, or you may get a table for two for $40, a table for four for $80, or a cabana for eight for $160.

Mistletoe

Hush Money/Mordecai: 3632 N. Clark Nov. 22 – Jan. 1 Tuesdays – Wednesdays: 5 p.m. – 11 p.m. Thursdays – Fridays: 5 p.m. – 12 a.m. Saturdays: 11 a.m. – 12 a.m. Sundays: 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.

The second floor of Mordecai (Hush Money) will be decked out in holiday decor, and there will be a special holiday cocktail menu!

Rock N Roll Christmas

HVAC Pub: 3530 N. Clark Dec. 21 – Jan. 31, 2020 Thursdays – Saturdays: 5 p.m. – 2 a.m.

Rotating holiday themed specials will be offered, and admission fees are dependent on planned shows/events/concerts. You may substitute the cover fee with a toy donation. There will be an ugly Christmas sweater contest with a $100 prize.

Rudolph’s Christmas Bar

Casey Moran’s: 3660 N. Clark Nov. 22 – Jan. 6 Mondays – Thursdays: 4 p.m. – 11 p.m. Fridays: 4 p.m. – 2 a.m. Saturdays: 11 a.m. – 3 a.m. Sundays: 9 a.m. – 11 p.m.

Multiple bars within Rudolph’s Christmas Bar will include: Grinch’s Piano Bar, Frosty’s Rooftop, Rudolph’s Lounge, and more. They will be partnering with Toys for Tots and will have on-site bins for donations with daily collection. Purchase tickets in advance; door ticket price subject to change.

Santa Baby Christmas Bar

Deuce’s Major League Bar: 3505 N. Clark Nov. 20 – Jan. 6 Mondays – Thursdays: 1 p.m. – 11 p.m. Fridays: 1 p.m. – 2 a.m. Saturdays: 11 a.m. – 3 a.m. Sundays: 9 a.m. – 11 p.m. 21+ after 8 p.m.

This pop up includes multiple bars, a Gingerbread Village, Alpine Ski Lounge, Santa’s Workshop, Winter Wonderland, and more. They will be partnering with Toys for Tots and will have on-site bins for donations with daily collection. Purchase tickets in advance; door ticket price subject to change.

Santa’s Workshop

Old Crow Smokehouse: 3506 N. Clark Mondays – Fridays: 4 p.m. – 2 a.m. Saturdays – Sunday: 10 a.m. – 2 a.m.

Country-style Christmas, the all-ages, no-cover popup will feature special menus, massive holiday décor, and three floors of festivities for a season-long celebration. There will be several giant Christmas trees and Santas, as well as two enormous rocking chairs, perfect for a photo op. See Santa take off in his reindeer run sleigh and roast marshmallows while Christmas movies play on the screens.

Winterland

Gallagher Way: 3635 N. Clark Nov. 22 – Feb. 16

Winterland includes the return of the famous Christkindlmarket Wrigleyville, ice skating on an 8,000-square-foot ice rink, curling and skating lessons, Santa’s Workshop, wreath making classes, oversized decorative winter characters, holiday movies and much more. This year’s transformation will include a 30-foot holiday tree underneath the Wrigley Field Marquee, a tree lot at Big Star Wrigleyville, holiday programming at Hotel Zachary, Hush Money, Lucky Dorr, Smoke Daddy Wrigleyville and other restaurants around Gallagher Way, plus even more decorative lights around Gallagher Way

Click here for another fun Chicago experience!

Elements Wine Bar: Good Wine Vibes

I stepped into the recently opened Elements Wine Bar in downtown Valparaiso, took in the ambiance and was immediately beyond excited!  In my mind, I was thinking “Ayeeee, this is my spot!” Mesmerized by the colorful lanterns hanging overhead, as the soulful sounds of Susan Tedeschi played through the speakers I curiously peaked around the bar. Oh yes, there’s wine on tap!

Although super excited, I played it cool.  I didn’t jump up and down like a kid, lol.  I decided that I’d save that for my next visit.

I’ve always frequented wineries, so this was my first experience in a wine bar.  It’s self-service. Here’s what you do:

  1. Select your glass; they’re hanging on a rack under the wine machines.
  2. When you enter the bar you will receive a plastic card from one of the employees to track your tab.  Insert the card into the machine.
  3. Choose your wine from the numerous bottles displayed in the machine.
  4. Select your taste, either a 2 oz, 4 oz., or a 6 oz. portion. Displayed above each bottle’s taste portion on the machine are the prices; they range depending on the wine.  My first taste was a 2 oz Petite Petite Blend for $2.50.  It was fabulous!  I had to get a glass.
  5. Don’t forget to REMOVE YOUR CARD after your selection.  I kept leaving my card inserted in the machine and not realizing it until I was ready to go for another taste.  I obviously was trying to buy a round for everyone in the bar, lol, I’m so generous!

There are 20 bottles on tap, but much more are available.  Wine imports from all over the world including Napa, Italy, France, Australia, New Zeeland, Chile, Austria, and Germany are displayed on the wine rack and behind the bar.  The selection always changes.

See something on the rack display that peaks your interest?  You can get any bottle of wine opened.   Say you’re eyeing that $300 bottle of 2007 Opus One but don’t want to commit to buying the whole bottle. Request it opened for a tasting.  The tasting of the luxury wines will run anywhere from $15-$20 but at least you’re not spending $300, and you can tell all of your friends that you tried a 2007 Opus One.

The cozy environment and music greatly enhance the experience. Owner Michelle Prosser desired a jazzy look with a friendly welcoming atmosphere.

“I wanted comfortable, velvet tufted furniture, and natural woods with a bit of funkiness” -Owner, Michelle Prosser

She nailed her vision.  I loved the cozy with a bit of edge design.  I felt welcome from the minute I walked in.  Cotteena was on staff my first visit.  She explained the concept and steps to me a couple of times. I didn’t absorb everything the first time because I was too distracted taking in everything (sigh…thank goodness for friendly, patient, wine enthusiasts, lol).  I found not only the staff to be friendly but the fellow wine drinkers in the bar were very nice and pleasant.  The mood is very laid back.

Michelle fell in love with wine ten years ago while frequenting the Michigan Wine Trails. Some of her favorite tasting rooms are Contessa in Coloma and the Warner tasting room in Paw Paw.

Speaking with the knowledgeable winemakers at wineries inspired her to study wine.   She set out on this path in 2011 while managing Kelsey’s Steak House in Valparaiso.

“Wine to me is intellectual; I enjoy the cerebral aspect just as much as I enjoy drinking it.”

— Michelle Prosser, Owner of Elements Wine Bar

Once she began this education, she couldn’t stop.  She described it a Black Hole of information; once you dive in you never want to get out.  “Wine is so interesting and fun; I just kept taking more and more classes!”  She also took her studies abroad to Florence, Italy, where she achieved one of several wine certifications.

Equipped with a passion for wine,  desire for her own business, and encouragement from her boss at Kelsey’s, she was prompted to make a move and open Elements.  Yep, her boss encouraged her to quit and pursue her dream; I had to make sure that I heard her right…that’s indeed what she said.  Shout out to supportive bosses; you know who you are!!!  Unsure of reception when starting this venture, she found additional support from the city of Valparaiso and her business neighbors.

“I love doing business here in Valparaiso! I didn’t know what to expect initially. This experience has been wonderful.”

— Elements Wine Bar Owner, Michelle Prosser

 From left:  Cotteena, Michelle, and Starlett From left:  Cotteena, Michelle, and Starlett

Patrons are encouraged to speak with any of the wine bar employees and ask questions, as they’re all knowledgeable about the wine selections.

Wanting to learn a bit more about wine myself, I asked Michelle the following questions:

What would you recommend for someone who usually prefers a sweeter wine?

We have something for every palate. I like to talk to people when they come in to see what they usually drink.  I find that many come in with a favored wine but want to branch out into other wines.  I know it can be a turnoff to jump too drastically when you’re used to sweet, and you jump to something like a Napa Cabernet…I can find a nice bridge for them.  I’ve been pretty lucky with finding wine for people after speaking with them.”

 Any bottle of wine can be opened at the customer's request Any bottle of wine can be opened at the customer’s request

What’s the difference in wine taste from country to country?
Italy has its indigenous grapes.  Many of their grapes don’t grow well in other areas, so they’re going to have their unique flavor profile.  One of the easiest ways to think of it is old world and new world.  New world wine would be anywhere except Europe.  American and Australian wines would typically be more fruit forward. New World wines like those of NAPA will give you bigger, bolder flavors.   Older World wines may tend to be softer, less fruit forward; there’s more elegance to it.  They’re not going for the bigger bolder flavors as much. There’s also colder climate and warmer climate.  Colder climate wines like Riesling will give you more acidity and a different kind of fruit flavor than a warmer climate wine that will have more tropical fruit flavors to it.

 Meat and Cheese Platters Are Available Meat and Cheese Platters Are Available  A mixture of craft and domestic bottles are available for non-wine drinkers. A mixture of craft and domestic bottles are available for non-wine drinkers.

Although the bar doesn’t offer full kitchen services, guests can nosh on meat and cheese platters and popcorn.  If you’re looking for something a bit heartier, you can either bring in carryout or have food delivered to the bar from local restaurants.

Not necessarily a wine drinker but still interested in socializing? You’ll be happy to know that Elements Wine Bar offers a mix of 8 different bottled domestic and craft beers.

I can’t say enough good about Elements Wine Bar.  If you haven’t checked it out yet, do yourself a favor and GO!

Make sure to tell me your favorite selection in the comments!

“The Steele Merlot is absolutely fabulous. Not only is it robust, the aftertaste gives you an explosion in your mouth. The oaky finish is phenomenal. For this price point it’s a steal! (Pun Intended)”

— Patron, Teresa Janovitz of Portage, IN

Things to Keep in Mind

  • Elements Wine Bar is Non-Smoking

  • There’s Indoor and Outdoor Patio Seating

  • Patrons Must Be 21 and Over

Aerial Rope Challenge

The Forge: Lemont Quarries Outdoor Adventure Park

The Forge Lemont Quarries Outdoor Adventure Park is one of the best things to come out of 2020, and I’m super excited about it! The 300-acre park located 22 miles outside of downtown Chicago, boasts the largest adventure course in North America. It’s everything an outdoor thrill-seeker could want and more! My son Donovan and I were so impressed during our visit!

Man zip-lining over trees at The Forge Lemont Quarries
Zipline between towers (photo courtesy of The Forge)

The Forge Lemont Quarries Activities

The Forge is an amusement park for outdoor enthusiasts, and there’s no shortage of activities. Young and old alike can expect a full day of open-air fun! Kiddos ages 3 to 13 will love the Two Towers Adventure for kids; it has over 30 fun elements.

Kids playground at The Forge
Kids’ Zone

Also, there’s an aerial challenge course, four over-water ziplines, mountain biking skills courses and pump tracks, flatwater paddlesports including kayaking, canoeing, and pedal boats, rock climbing zone, tactical laser tag, outdoor escape experiences, five miles of running, biking and walking trails.

Males on BMX bikes at The Forge
Bike Skills Course and Pump Tracks (Photo courtesy of The Forge)
Men playing Tactical laser tag at The Forge
Tactical Laser Tag has over 30 different game modes (photo courtesy of The Forge)

The Forge Lemont Quarries 8 Tower Adventure

The Eight Tower Adventure is the showpiece of The Forge Lemont Quarries Adventure Park and the activity that Donovan and I decided to conquer.

The Skyscaper Tower (video courtesy of The Forge)

The 10-acre adventure course has five stand-alone “Hex Towers,” interconnected by 2 miles of ziplines, multiple rappelling stations, and 299 high ropes course elements spread across 15 aerial adventure trails. The Hex Towers connect to the three tallest climbing, rappelling, and ziplining towers in the United States: East X Tower, West X Tower, and Skyscraper Tower!

Man and woman wearing climbing equipment at The Forge Lemont Quarries
Ready to take on Skyscraper Tower

Skyscraper Tower

The Skyscraper Tower is over 120 feet high and has 56 rope course elements. I have to be straight. My nerves had me close to chickening out on this course. Once I decided that I was doing it, my nervous energy became excitement!

woman looking up at Skyscraper Tower at the Forge
Skyscraper Tower

However, what I imagined as my ability to tackle this tower and what transpired were world’s apart, lol. It took us over two hours to make it to the top of the Skyscraper Tower. How an individual can tackle all eight in a day is beyond me! There were times when I thought of taking a more comfortable alternative, namely when faced with the rock climbing wall, but I pushed through. My son was even impressed. The rewards were epic views throughout the experience. There were moments during the climb when I’d make sure to pause to enjoy the peace and stunning views.

Once we reached the top, we took the zipline across the water! I let out all kinds of screams, lol! It was awesome! You can also rappel down from the top. We did that too!

Zipline (video courtesy of The Forge)

The dream and vision of The Forge go back to my childhood. I grew up in Colorado in the mountains climbing, biking, and doing adventure sports. I wanted to bring those authentic outdoor activities to this part of the country.

Co-Founder Jeremy Bacon

After zip-lining we took to the kayaks for a few races. I definitely got a full workout in that day!

The Forge Lemont Quarries Dining

After you work up an appetite grab a bite at The Foundry –an on-the-go market with healthy food options. We enjoyed a hearty lunch, and I’m happy to report that the food was just as impressive as the views.

woman holding a plate of food at The Forge Lemont Quarries
The Foundry

Open daily; the chef-curated, locally-sourced menu includes a selection of healthy sandwiches and wraps, parfaits, green and grain salads, pasta salads, and more, including a variety of vegetarian-friendly options. Additionally, the open-air concept serves a full line-up of beverages, including On The Ropes, an exclusive craft Kolsch Lager created in collaboration with Lemont’s own Pollyanna Brewery.

Seating area at the Foundry restaurant inside The Forge Adventure Park
The Foundry seating

The Forge Safety

Before engaging in the tower adventure, we signed waivers and received extensive training instructions and demonstrations. We even had practice sessions with our equipment. I felt confident proceeding afterward. There was also an attendant readily available for assistance on the tower.

women doing yoga at The Forge Outdoor park
Yoga at The Forge (photo courtesy of The Forge)

Final Thoughts

In a time when outdoor activities are the preferred choice for so many, The Forge is the obvious choice! Take advantage of this new addition to the Midwest! I can’t wait to return! My son’s been talking about getting a job there ever since our visit. Too bad we live in the city, and he doesn’t have a car, lol.

P.S-If you’re able to get through the 8 Tower Adventure in a day, you’re super human and I want to know who you are! Mad Props!!!

Important Notes

  • Check the hours of the park before your visit
  • Make a reservation
  • You can purchase a Day Pass or Individual Activity Pass
  • Annual Membership is available
  • Park is open 365 days a year
  • The park grounds are open to the public you only pay for the activities.
  • Outside food and beverages are prohibited
  • The park is dog friendly (on leash required)
Man ziplining across aerial challenge course

River Boat Cruise

Chicago Staycation Ideas: Be a Tourist in Your City

Man and woman wearing masks while on Chicago tour

Along with the rest of the world, we’ve made significant adjustments and cancellations to plans this year. However, even with our big ideas and travel being off the table, we realize that there’s no need to cancel 2020!

So, we shifted focus to quick road trips close to home, being tourists in our beautiful city, and staycations! Adapting has resulted in much-needed refreshment and escapes from the craziness.

Multiple conversations within the family have centered around balancing activities outside of the home with remaining cautious during the pandemic. So we decided that patio dining and outdoor recreation will make up most of our entertainment for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, Chicago offers plenty of both!

Skyscrapers in Chicago on walking tour
Vista Towers

Playing tourists in our city is nothing new. However, my appreciation for everything the city has to offer is more significant than ever!

Chicago presents endless options for designing a staycation. More importantly, businesses have stepped up to the plate implementing procedures for public safety, so we felt confident venturing out.

Where to Stay in Chicago

Crown Fountain at Millennium Park Chicago Tour
Crown Fountain at Millennium Park

Now is an excellent time for planning a Chicago staycation as many hotels have great deals happening. Choose Chicago compiled a list of comfortable accommodations open and ready to host, eliminating the need for lots of research. Our hotel located next to Millenium Park made it easy to get to the destinations on our itinerary.

Saturday Itinerary

Chicago Architecture Center

We began our Saturday exploring the Chicago Architecture Center, a nonprofit cultural organization whose mission is to inspire people to discover why design matters.

Miniature building exhibit on display at Chicago Architecture Center Tour

There are two levels of exhibits focusing on Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods, housing types, leading architects, future projects, and includes the largest scale model of the city. It was a great prelude to our afternoon walking tour.

Must See Chicago Walking Tour

After exploring the center, we assembled for the Chicago Architectural Foundation’s Must-See Chicago Walking Tour, a fast-paced 90-minute stroll featuring some of Chicago’s most famous buildings, including the Wrigley Building, the Art Institute of Chicago, Willis (Sears tower forever to Chicagoans), and the Chicago Theatre.

Art Deco Style Skycraper on walking Chicago tour
Carbide & Carbon Building: Art Deco Architectural Style

One of my favorite activities is admiring architecture while walking downtown. This tour heightened my appreciation for the magnificent architecture in the city. We learned how to identify various architectural styles, and I’ve been strolling around being a know-it-all ever since, lol! There are so many things hidden in plain sight around Chicago. The buildings that I pass every day I now see differently. I realized that I don’t stop and look up enough, and I’ve missed out on so many details. Dave and I loved the content of this tour!

Man and woman standing in front of theatre marquee during Chicago Architecture tour
The Chicago Theartre

The group max was 6 individuals and required masks for the duration. Our guide was also alert to ensuring everyone kept a social distance. The Chicago Architecture Center offers over 50 different walking tours! Wear comfortable shoes for this activity.

Dinner at Virtue in Hyde Park

We headed to Hyde Park for dinner at Virtue Saturday evening. It was our first visit to the Southern American restaurant from Chef Erick Williams. Both Dave and I felt the cuisine was outstanding. We indulged in mac n cheese, fried green tomatoes, shrimp with grits, cauliflower steak, gumbo, and key lime pie. I don’t regret one calorie, I’ve already created a list of our friends and family to bring back!

Also noteworthy was the warm and hospitable service; overall excellent dining experience!

Sunday

Absolutely Chicago Segway Tour

I’ve low-key wanted to do a Segway tour for years but never followed through, so I was looking forward to this tour. It did not disappoint! I smiled and laughed throughout and commented several times to Dave how much fun I was having. Absorbing the scenic beauty of Chicago on Segway was a real treat!

Tour guide explaining Buckingham Fountain during Chicago tour

We did Absolutely Chicago Segway Tours’ newest adventure ‘The Chicago Insider,’ which covers the good, the bad, the ugly, and totally weird stories of Chicago.

The 2-hour fun fest incorporated a variety of scenes and interesting facts about the city. Tour Guide Jen was loads of fun and kept us engaged throughout! I’d do this again in a heartbeat. Absolutely Chicago Segway Tours offers several different tour themes. An absolute MUST!

Architecture River Tour

Our weekend of tours continued with the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady Cruises. This 90-minute cruise is Chicago’s number 1 tour, according to TripAdvisor. It lived up to accolades. There’s nothing like gazing up at Chicago’s legendary architecture while floating in between the buildings. It was magical!

Woman standing on boat with cityscape backdrop on Chicago tour
Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise

The docents from the Chicago Architecture Foundation are passionate about architecture, making all of the difference with their tours. The Chicago River Tour should be on everyone’s bucket list! It was the perfect way to cap off our weekend!

I briefly wondered if three tours during the weekend would become monotonous. However, it was far from it. Each offered a varied perspective and insight. Dave and I couldn’t decide which was our favorite as we appreciated something from each experience! I feel you can’t go wrong with either and would even recommend all three in a weekend as we did.

Woman holding cocktail smiling at camera during Chicago Staycation

In Conclusion

Our staycation weekend was much needed and a reminder of why we fell in love with Chicago. Restarting activities outside of our home after the phase reopenings had me a bit nervous initially, so I’m grateful for the health and safety measures businesses put into place. We felt comfortable all weekend. There’s plenty to do around Chicago while remaining precautious and social distancing.

Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to take advantage of this time to be a tourist in your city and plan a staycation!

My weekend staycation itinerary was hosted by Choose Chicago, however, all opinions are my own.

Chicago Skyscrapers on Chicago Segway Tour

Hamilton County Indiana Getaway Weekend

More and more individuals are opting for road trips over flying these days, and I am here for it. I have always been a strong advocate for the road trip. All I need are a few of my favorite people and a great playlist!

Woman smiling at camera holding a mug of coffee on a road trip to Hamilton County, Indiana
Coffee is a road trip essential

Road trips offer excellent opportunities to explore off the beaten path and discover new things in your backyard that may have been previously overlooked.

The Midwest has an abundance of cool travel destinations; my latest discovery is Hamilton County, Indiana!

I have driven through Hamilton County multiple times during road trips to Indianapolis and beyond. But, I had no idea about the beautiful gem that I repeatedly passed through!

Hamilton County, Indiana

Exterior of building in Carmel, Indiana.  Hamilton County
Carmel, Indiana

Named after Alexander Hamilton, Hamilton County is about 30 minutes north of Indianapolis, Indiana. Its largest cities consist of Carmel, Noblesville, Fishers, and Westfield. The county as a whole and cities within have received numerous national accolades, including:

  • 2018 Best Small Cities for Biking in the U.S. by People For Bikes (Carmel)
  • 2018: 9 Best Food & Drink Trails in the U.S. by Trips to Discover (Hamilton County)
  • 2019 Best Fall Getaways by Reader’s Digest (Hamilton County)
  • 2018 World’s #1 Amphitheatre: Ruoff Music Center by Pollstar (Noblesville)
  • 2019: 19 Places in the Midwest to Visit with Family by Chicago Parent
  • 2019: 50 Best Food Towns in America by The Daily Meal (Carmel)
  • 2019: Safest Cities in America by Neighborhood Scout (Carmel, Fishers, Westfield)

A drive from Chicago with a 6:30 a.m. start time put us at our first stop in Carmel around 9:00 a.m. central time.

Within the cities of Hamilton County, visitors will find public art and galleries, hiking and bike trails, unique local shops, incredible food, museums, and lots of nature and outdoor activities such as golfing, kayaking, and boating. My husband and I agreed that we could have spent a few extra days because there was so much more that we wanted to see but ran out of time. Another trip is definitely in our future.

Colorful garden with flowers and trees and large rock
Kawachinagano Japanese Garden

Dave and I relished in a lovely relaxing weekend and fit quite a bit into our schedule at an enjoyable pace. With everything that we’ve been experiencing over the past few months, this getaway was exactly what we needed.

Where to Stay in Hamilton County Indiana

Chandelier in Drury Hotel Lobby in Carmel, Indiana
Drury Hotel Lobby

Our accommodations were at the Drury Plaza Hotel at 9625 N. Meridian St. This was our first road trip during the pandemic; the protocols implemented by the hotel when it came to social distancing and cleaning put me at ease. Our room was spotless. 

Hotel amenities include free hot breakfast, business center, pool, and 24-hour fitness center (pool and fitness center require reservations). There’s also a restaurant and a 5:30 kickback every evening with complimentary cocktails and food. If you want a comfortable and refreshing stay, I recommend this hotel.

Where to Shop, Eat, Sip, and Play in Hamilton County Indiana

Saturday

The Cake Bake Shop by Gwendolynn RogersCarmel, IN

Carmel City Center: 799 Hanover Place Suite 260

White cottage style restaurant with green foliage decorating the front in Carmel, Indiana
The Cake Bake Shop

We began with brunch at The Cake Bake Shop by Gwendolynn Rogers. Let me just say that you don’t want to miss this fairy-tale experience! As soon as I gazed upon the exterior, I knew that I was in for a treat! As I entered and peered around, the word magical came to mind. Every inch of the decor is stunning, and the cakes are exquisite! We were also extremely impressed with the service, food, and cocktails! I had the best quiche of my life here (Sun-Dried Tomato, Basil, and Feta.)

Crystal chandelier in restaurant dining room at the Cake Bake Shop in Carmel, Indiana

My friends know that I prefer pie over cake, so when I told them that I’d drive back to The Cake Bake Shop just for another slice of the blueberry lemon cake, they knew it slapped! The Cake Bake Shop is on my list for whenever I return to Hamilton County. Maybe next time, I’ll try their Afternoon Tea. Walk ins are welcome but reservations are recommended.

Table inside restaurant with fresh flower centerpiece at the Cake Bake Shop in Carmel, Indiana
The Cake Bake Shop

Bath Junkie

Carmel City Center: 741 Hanover Pl, Carmel, IN

Colorful display cabinet with various scents for bath products at Bath Junkie in Carmel, Indiana
Bath Junkie
Woman adding scent to bath oil at Bath Junkie in Carmel, Indiana
Mixing our scents

Bath Junkie is only a few steps away from The Cake Bake Shop. Stop in to create your own bath and body products. Select your product, choose your fragrance and color, and they’ll mix it for you. It was hard settling on a scent because there’s a plethora to choose from. The staff were very knowledgeable regarding which scents worked well together and patient with mixing according to my liking.

I ended up creating a bath oil with an acai and bamboo scent, and I love it! Dave created a cologne consisting of woodlands, chocolate & sage, sweet grass, and cedar.

Kawachinagano Japanese Garden

One Civic Sq., South of Carmel City Hall

Various trees lining a pebble pathway in a garden in downtown Carmel, Indiana
Kawachinagano Japanese Garden
Woman staring down a garden path lined with trees in downtown Carmel, Indiana
Japanese Garden Pathway

We didn’t let the rainfall prevent us from exploring this beautiful garden park.

Entry through a Japanese arch led to a colorful tranquil garden featuring a large koi pond, flowers, and seating to take in the peaceful surroundings. Also, there’s, a covered picnic area with tables.

The small park was inspired by representatives of Carmel’s Sister City, Kawachinagano, Osaka, Japan.

Urban Vines Winery & Brewery

303 E. 161st St., Westfield, IN

Urban Vines business sign outside of winery in Westfield, Indiana
Urban Vines Winery & Brewery

Urban Vines Winery & Brewery is Westfield’s first winery and second brewery. The 5-acre property includes a tasting room, brewery, outdoor patio, and meadow overlooking the pond and vineyard. The rain subsided in time for us to enjoy a lovely afternoon of wine, sun, and conversation. My cousin, who lives in the area, met up with us at the vineyard. It felt good seeing family again! There’s plenty of space to spread out and get comfy here. There’s also live music in the evenings.

Grindstone Public House

101 N. 10th St., Noblesville, IN

Saturday evening we dined at Grindstone Public House, a locally owned restaurant, in the charming historic town of Noblesville. Grindstone Public House is located in the historic Castor building built in 1891 by William H. Castor, a local farmer, and entrepreneur. The restaurant specializes in American fare.

Mural that reads Grindstone on the exterior of a restaurant in Noblesville, Indiana
Grindstone Public House
Fried fish and mashed potatoes at Grindstone Public House in Noblesville, Indiana
Fish & Chips

I ordered the fish & chips (I substituted the chips for mashed potatoes), and it did not disappoint! Ordering fish at restaurants is always a risk, in my opinion. I was delighted with this dish; the fish was perfectly cooked and flavorful throughout while the batter was light. The Stuffed’ Shrooms appetizer was also ahhhhmmmazzzzzingggg! On another note, I was intrigued to see a fried bologna sandwich on the menu, which was my go-to as a kid! Next time, lol.

Four Day Ray Brewing-Fishers, IN

11671 Lantern Rd.

Samplings of beer at Four Day Ray Brewing in Fishers, Indiana
Beer Flight at Four Day Ray Brewing

We ended our evening with a stroll around downtown Fishers and beer flights at Four Day Ray Brewing. The brewery features a constantly rotating selection of award-winning brews at their 24-tap tasting room. I’m pretty tolerant when it comes to strong craft beer. However, I think their Monk Sweat put some hair on my chest! It definitely made me sweat!

two men and two women holding beers and smiling
Four Day Ray Brewery

Sunday

Eggshell Bistro

51 W. City Center Dr., Carmel, IN

Vintage pictures hanging in restaurant in Carmel, Indiana
Eggshell Bistro

Sunday began with brunch at Eggshell Bistro, a globally inspired award-winning restaurant from Chef Larry Hanes. We shared the Truffled Egg Tartine: sous-vide poached hen’s egg, roasted asparagus, truffle oil, preserved lemon, watercress, bottarga, and fontina and the Shakshuka: Moroccan-spiced tomato base, habanera, onion, garlic, kale, chèvre, zhoug, baked hen’s egg, grilled baguette.

My taste buds went nuts when I bit into the Truffled Egg Tartine; as a result, I had to talk myself out of ordering a second serving. The flavor combination was outstanding! The Shakshuka had incredible taste and spice. It came with a grilled baguette that was out of this world. Food and Wine Magazine named Eggshell Bistro the best breakfast in Indiana; well, they certainly won’t get any argument from me. Don’t miss this spot!

Books & Brews

61 West City Center Drive, Carmel, IN

Our final stop before heading home was at Books & Brews.

Man looking at books lining a shelf at Books & Brews in Carmel, Indiana
Books & Brews, Carmel, Indiana

We love books. We love beer. We love people. At Books & Brews we’re passionate about disconnecting people from technology and reconnecting them with each other.

Books & Brews

It was love at first sight when Dave and I walked into this place. There’s a bookstore selling gently used books in front and a bar selling craft beer named after books in the back. We tried some of the Nancy Brew and couldn’t leave without a 6 pack to enjoy at home. I can’t wait to return so that I can spend more time here.

white cans of beer with a woman's picture on the front at Books & Brews in Carmel, Indiana
Nancy Brew

Our weekend hit the spot in so many ways and created great memories.

I’ve already started my list of things to do during our next visit, including, biking The Monon Trail and Shopping Carmel Arts & Design District.

I suggest that you add Hamilton County Indiana to your list of Midwest Destinations!

My visit to Hamilton County, Indiana was hosted by Visit Hamilton County Tourism Inc. All opinions in this article are my own.

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Spicy Southwestern Chicken Salad

This Spicy Southwestern Chicken Salad is a fantastic replica of a similar entree I enjoyed during a 2002 family vacation in South Dakota. I can’t remember the name of the restaurant we dined at, but I fondly recall my first bite of their spicy Southwest Chicken Salad. The components were outstanding, and my taste buds went crazy!

Jump to Recipe

I have been making this version at home ever since. It’s a big hit with my family, which is a huge accomplishment. Because, while my husband and I love salads, my son isn’t much of a fan, so to create something that he loves is a big deal!

Hand holding a piece of chicken

Spicy Southwestern Chicken Salad Ingredients and Recipe

Jump to Video

Usually, I marinate chicken breasts with fajita flavors and grill them. However, I eliminated this step and opted for a delicious pre-cooked chicken to save time and energy.

For this recipe, I used OriginAl’s Chicken Ribs. These ribs are fully cooked chicken thighs prepared with a dry rub and smoked over hickory for 4 hours. The flavor is outstanding! Even better, the prep time is only 5 minutes! 

I’ve been using these ribs in all of my chicken recipes as of late, they’ve made dinner less complicated. OriginAl’s does nationwide two-day shipping right to your door (use Code: FloFAVS for $10 off)!

An interesting fact about myself is I declared myself a strictly white meat chicken eater during my teenage years and have avoided dark meat ever since. Consequently, I was shocked at how much I enjoyed these chicken thighs. I’m a huge fan of these chicken ribs!

I thawed 4 ribs and crisped in the air fryer for 5 minutes (you can also heat in the oven). Cut into strips after heating.

Spicy Southwest Chicken Salad

Salsa Ingredients

  • 1 15 oz black beans (rinsed and drained)
  • 1 cup corn (I thawed frozen corn)
  • 15 grape tomatoes halved (see instruction video)
  • 6 Tbsp cilantro leaves chopped
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • 3 tbsp spicy dressing (see below)

Mix ingredients in bowl and set aside

Spicy Dressing

  • 1/3 cup Hot Sauce
  • 1/2 Cup Olive Oil Vinaigrette dressing (shake beforehand)
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper

Combine ingredients in blender and mix. Pour dressing into a bowl and set aside.

Table setting with Southwestern Chicken Salad

Crispy Tortilla Strips

  • 3 tortilla shells cut into strips and then 1 1/2-inch pieces
  • olive oil spray or 1/2 cup vegetable oil depending on how you want to crisp them.

Coat tortilla strips with olive oil spray, place in air fryer on 350 and crisp 7 minutes until desired color. Set aside

Alternate: heat 1/2 cup vegetable oil and fry tortilla strips until crisp

Table setting with chicken and salad

To Assemble Spicy Southwestern Chicken Salad

  • Place 1 cup lettuce on plate
  • drizzle spicy dressing over lettuce
  • top with 1/2 cup salsa
  • Add chicken strips
  • Top with crumbled queso, tortilla strips, and drizzle with ranch dressing

Enjoy (Click here for additional recipes)

Hand holding a bowl of Southwestern Chicken Salad and dog watching

Spicy Southwestern Chicken Salad

Flo
Southwestern Chicken Salad with a spicy dressings

Ingredients
  

  • 4 OriginAl's Chicken Rib thighs cut into strips
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Queso Fresco Crumbles optional
  • Ranch Dressing

Spicy Southwestern Dressing

  • 1/2 cup Olive Oil Vinaigrette Dressing shake beforehand
  • 1/3 cup Hot Sauce
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp Sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp crushed black pepper

Salsa

  • 15 Grape Tomatoes Halved
  • 1 Can Black Beans 15 oz
  • 1 Cup Corn I thawed frozen corn
  • 6 tbsp Cilantro leaves chopped
  • 4 tbsp Chopped Red Onion
  • 1/2 tsp Cumin
  • 1/4 tsp Sea Salt

Crispy Tortilla Strips

  • 3 Flour Tortillas cut into strips
  • Olive Oil Spray coat tortilla strips

Instructions
 

  • Combine salsa ingredients in a bowl and stir, set aside
  • Add all of the spicy dressing ingredients to a blender and blend
  • Pour spicy dressing in a bowl and set aside
  • Add 3 tbsp of spicy dressing to salsa and stir
  • Coat tortilla strips with olive oil spray and crisp 5-7 minutes in air fryer at 400
    Alternative: heat 1/2 cup vegetable oil in a small pot and fry tortilla strips to desired crispness. remove and drain on paper towel covered plate
  • Place romaine lettuce on the bottom of a salad plate
  • drizzle spicy dressing over romaine lettuce
  • top with 1/2 cup of salsa
  • add chicken strips
  • top with queso fresco crumbles and tortilla strips
  • drizzle ranch dressing over salad

Video

French Toast Casserole

Overnight French Toast Casserole

I’m a big fan of at-home brunches, especially when I have guests staying. We always end the weekend with a mid-morning Sunday feast. In fact, I have a whole Pinterest board dedicated to the at-home-brunch. When I get back to my Sunday tradition for weekend guests, this overnight French Toast Casserole will make its debut. Until then, my family and I will enjoy all of this deliciousness. We served ours with bacon, and it was the perfect balance of sweet and savory!

Brown Sugar Bacon
Brown Sugar Bacon

I learned how to make this overnight French Toast Casserole during one of my last pre-quarantine events. The Tipsy Housewife hosted the brunch at Mariano’s in their demonstration kitchen. It was the perfect space for the group of ladies gathered.

Mariano's Kitchen
Mariano’s Kitchen

The main ingredient for this casserole is Chateau Bread Dumplings. Chateau is a local family-owned Chicagoland Company. Their handmade dumplings have been around for many generations and are a staple in many homes. April, The Tipsy Housewife, uses the dumplings in a variety of fabulous recipes! So many, that I’ve nicknamed these dumplings the MacGyver of foods (those of you as old as me or older will get the reference)

Two women smiling at the camera holding a casserole
Me and The Tipsy Housewife
Jump to Recipe

This recipe is simple and can be assembled and stored for two days before baking. In fact, the longer the dumplings have to soak up the batter, the better it tastes. Here’s everything you need for the French Toast casserole:

Ingredients

French Toast Casserole ingredients
Ingredients
  • 2 Boxes of Chateau Bread Dumplings
  • 6 Eggs
  • 2 Cups of Whole Milk
  • 1 C of Heavy Cream
  • 1/3 C of Light Brown Sugar
  • 1tsp of Vanilla Extract
  • Splash of Almond Extract
  • 1 teaspoon of Cinnamon
  • A couple of shakes of nutmeg
  • 1/2 t of salt
  • 1 Stick of Butter
  • Maple Syrup & Powdered Sugar

French Toast Casserole Assembly

Female Chef holding a bowl of casserole ingredients
The Tipsy Housewife
  • Thaw and cube bread dumplings
  • Whisk together milk, cream, eggs, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, 1/3 C of brown sugar, vanilla, and almond extract until well combined.
  • Melt 2 T of butter and pour into a 9 x 13 casserole dish.
  • Add cubed dumplings to the dish and pour the batter over it. Toss or stir to ensure all of the dumplings are coated.
  • Cover and place into the fridge overnight or up to two nights.
  • When ready to bake, remove from the fridge, melt the remaining stick of butter and 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, and drizzle over the top of the casserole.
  • Bake at 375 degrees for about 45 minutes. The casserole is done once it is firm in the center.
  • When you remove it from the oven, drizzle it with syrup and sprinkle it with brown sugar, then let it rest for 10 minutes.
  • Serve by scooping it out like bread pudding.
  • Serve with syrup powdered sugar, fresh fruit, or whipped cream.
French Toast cubes in a casserole dish
Pre Baked Casserole

There is no substitute for the dumplings in this French Toast Casserole recipe because no other bread holds the batter the way the Chateau bread dumplings are designed to. Here’s a list of the grocery stores where these dumplings are available.  If you cannot find them in a store near you,  you can order online. These dumplings are incredibly versatile, just check out this list of recipes on Chatuau’s website. My family and I love both the potato and bread dumplings!

Let me know what you think of the casserole in the comments. For additional recipes click here!

Bacon, strawberries, and French Toast casserole on a plate
Breakfast

Overnight French Toast Casserole

A fun and delicious spin on traditional French Toast
Prep Time 20 mins
Cook Time 45 mins
Course Breakfast
Cuisine American, French
Servings 8

Ingredients
  

  • 2 Boxes Chateau Bread Dumplings
  • 2 Cups Whole Milk
  • 1 Cup Heavy Cream
  • 1/3 Cup Light Brown Sugar
  • 1 Tsp Vanilla Extract
  • 1 Splash Almond Extract
  • 1 Tsp Cinnamon
  • 2 Shakes Nutmeg
  • 1/2 Tsp Salt
  • 1 Stick Butter
  • Maple Syrup & Powdered Sugar for topping

Instructions
 

  • Thaw and cube bread dumplings
  • Whisk together milk, cream, eggs, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, 1/3 cup of brown sugar, vanilla, and almond extract until well combined
  • Melt 2 tablespoons of butter and pour into a 9 x 13 casserole dish
  • Add cubed dumplings to the dish and pour the batter over it. Toss or stir to ensure all of the dumplings are coated
  • Cover and place into the fridge overnight or up to two nights
  • When ready to bake, remove from the remainder of the stick of butter along with 2 tablespoons of brown sugar and drizzle over top of the casserole.
  • Bake at 375 degrees for about 45 minutes. The casserole is done once it is firm in the center
  • Remove from oven, drizzle with syrup and sprinkle with brown sugar. Let rest 10 minutes
  • Serve by scooping out like bread pudding
  • Top with powdered sugar, fresh fruit, and syrup
  • Enjoy
Keyword Breakfast, Breakfast Casserole, Brunch, French Toast, French Toast Casserole

Sushi Suite 202, an Omakase Speakeasy Opens Inside Hotel Lincoln

Sushi Suite 202, Chicago’s first sushi speakeasy hidden inside a hotel, has arrived at Hotel Lincoln! The hidden omakase sushi-bar offers a unique, intimate, and unforgettable experience.

Hotel Lincoln Chicago

Michael Sinensky and Erika London of SimpleVenue are the team behind the new Sushi Suite 202. They also own New York’s highly acclaimed Sushi Suite 1001 and Gianni’s Suite in the former Versace Mansion in Miami.

Speakeasy Admittance

Here’s how it works: Reservations for the 75-minute, 17-course Omakase dinner are made through Open Table or the Sushi-Suite website. The price of $125 per person is inclusive of tax and gratuity. 

Upon arrival at Hotel Lincoln, check-in at the front desk to receive a key to room 202. The room, on the second floor, is recognizable by the red door frame.

Upon entrance to the warm and inviting 500 square foot suite, you know you’re in for a dining experience like no other. Inside the transformed space are a cocktail bar, seating area, and an intimate six-seat sushi bar.

Seating area inside Sushi Suite 202
Longe area with self-serve Sake

Guests are encouraged to arrive early and unwind with a cocktail or two before dinner. The lounge area features beautiful velvet furniture, which is quite comfortable. The atmosphere and lighting set the tone for a fun and relaxing evening.

When I’d received the invitation to preview Sushi Suite 202, I thought it was a fresh and unique concept. However, the experience and execution went far beyond what I’d imagined.

Sushi Suite 202

The Chef guided us through an exciting food journey while subtly educating us. It was dinner and a show as we observed his graceful preparation of the sushi.

The fresh, high-quality fish flown in from Japan, New Zealand, and Mexico was incredible. Sushi Suite 202 was my first omakase experience. Dave and I had a fantastic time, therefore, it won’t be my last!

Sushi Suite 202 is open for dinner service Monday through Sunday (Sun-Thur, 5 p.m-11:15 p.m, Fri-Sat 5 p.m.-1 a.m.). It’s a fabulous choice for a special night out in the city. I can’t recommend it enough!

Hotel Lincoln

After dinner, stick around to hang out at Hotel Lincoln. The boutique hotel has a great vibe. There’s a rooftop bar with views of Lake Michigan and downtown Chicago, a restaurant, and a coffee shop inside the property. In addition, the hotel is dog-friendly!

Check out my Play page for additional fun experiences around Chicago!

Man performing at piano and cocktail on table

The Soulful Sounds of Jalen N’Gonda

Nu-Soul singer Jalen N'Gonda
Jalen N’Gonda

A few weeks ago, I had no idea who Jalen N’Gonda was. Boy, was I missing out! I’m so grateful for the discovery of this incredible artist through an invitation to cover his concert at the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago. The performance blew me away!

Jalen N'Gonda performing at Fairmont Chicago
Jalen N’Gonda performing at Fairmont Chicago

Fairmont has focused its attention on nurturing musical talent and amplifying hotel guest’s passion for music. As a result, in January, the hotel launched the Fairmont World Tour in partnership with the Montreux Jazz Festival (MJF), the world’s 2nd largest annual Jazz festival. 

N’Gonda’s show gave a taste of what guests will experience at the yearly festival spanning two weeks in July. The festival draws 250,000 music lovers from across the world.

glass of wine and candle on table
Fairmont Chicago

N’Gonda’s intimate concert lasted a little over an hour and had the audience captivated the whole time. If you’re not familiar with this up and coming artist Google him or better yet, check out his Spotify.

Jalen N’Gonda

Originally from Maryland, N’Gonda now resides in Liverpool, London. His music is a mixture of Jazz, R&B, Soul, and Pop. His primary instrument was his vocals; there’s something magical about them! He accompanied them with his electric guitar and piano, but I could have honestly been satisfied with him singing acapella.

Jalen N'Gonda sitting at piano singing
Jalen N’Gonda

He was engaging in between the music and his banter with the audience. We laughed out loud a few times at his wit and sarcasm.

Jalen N'Gonda
Jalen N’Gonda

I caught up with him as I was retrieving my coat for a brief chat. Friendly down to earth guy. He told me that he has a band back in Liverpool and I said to him that I was happy that I heard him without the group. His voice in the raw with minimal instruments was mesmerizing. He’s got chops and is quite ballsy covering artists such as Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Ray Charles effortlessly along with his originals, which were engaging by the way.

Piano on stage at Fairmont Chicago
Fairmont Chicago

N’Gonda will be touring at Fairmonts across the world during 2020, so if you happen to be in Austin, Boston, San Francisco, Rio, or Berkley, don’t miss his show!

For more fun happening around Chicago click through to the PLAY section of my blog!

Girl’s Night Out With Toyota at the Chicago Auto Show

A girl’s night out with your squad is always a fun time. A girl’s night out involving wine tasting is an even better time, am I right? You know I am. So grab your girls and head to the Chicago Auto Show for Toyota’s exclusive VIP Girl’s Night Out party with wine tasting!

The private event occurs within the Toyota exhibit on Tuesday, Feb. 11, from 6-8 p.m. The party is free to all who register, so secure your spot by RSVP here

Chicago Auto Show Toyota Exhibit

Toyota Girl’s Night Out

Girl’s Night Out Attendees will receive a VIP experience inside Toyota’s 44,980 square-foot display. Including exclusive access to the exhibit’s interactive displays, ride and drives in Toyota vehicles, drinks, food, swag, and giveaways! The wine tasting begins at 7 p.m.

Girls Night at Chicago Auto Show
Toyota Exhibit at Chicago Auto Show
Toyota Racing Simulator

The event hosted by Toyota and a Girl’s Guide to Cars is a great way to unwind, catch-up with your ladies, and explore the automaker’s full vehicle lineup of cars, trucks, and SUVs. Be sure the check out the 2020 Highlander, it’s an exquisite vehicle!

Chicago Auto Show Toyota Highlander
Toyota Highlander

I had the opportunity to scope it out at Toyota’s ride and drive track. The features are quite impressive, especially the automatic breaking and 12.5-inch camera screen. One of my biggest challenges while driving in Chicago is parallel parking and maneuvering in parking garages. The camera’s 360-degree views and aerial views are a much-needed convenience!

Space is limited, so RSVP today and shake off the winter blues with your gals with Toyota’s exhibit as your playground. There will be plenty of photo ops and Instagrammable moments. Also, everyone will have a chance to join a social media challenge and win a $100 gift card! I’ll see you there!

About the Chicago Auto Show

The Chicago Auto Show, held annually at McCormick Place, is the nation’s largest auto show. The 10-day event features over 1,000 vehicles on display, four indoor test track experiences, three outdoor ride-and-drive opportunities, engaging exhibits, interactive activities for all, and a hearty lineup of special events. The auto show opened to the public Saturday, Feb. 8, and runs through Presidents Day on Monday, Feb. 17. Doors open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day, except for the final day of the show when it closes at 8 p.m.

This post is sponsored by A Girl’s Guide to Cars, however, all opinions are my own.

What Drives Her? Women Share How They Carved Successful Careers in the Male Dominated Auto Industry

The fourth annual What Drives Her Luncheon will spotlight how women are changing the automotive business from the inside out! An overdue change considering women account for or influence a staggering 85 percent of car purchases. Yet, they hold only 25 percent of jobs in the automotive field. Women in Automotive and a Girl’s Guide to Cars will be hosts of the luncheon.

a panel of 4 women sitting on a stage at the What Drives Her Luncheon
2019 What Drives Her Luncheon

This year’s program focuses on how women are shifting the public conversation, building automotive careers, and impacting sales and trends.

If you’re contemplating a career in the automotive industry or know of an interested student, don’t miss this event! I was beyond inspired after I attended last year. Women candidly shared how they overcame obstacles in an industry where they often didn’t feel welcome. I was both moved and energized as I considered my goals.

What Drives Her Luncheon Panel Speakers

The panel speakers are paying their successes forward by mentoring and advising women and men looking to build a career. What better way to spend an afternoon than in a room of individuals lifting and encouraging you to nurture that inner spark and achieve what you set your mind to? Also, they’ll explain how they broke through barriers and stimulate you to do the same.

people sitting at tables at the What Drives Her Luncheon at Chicago Auto Show
2019 attendees of What Drives Her Luncheon

Speakers include:

Group of women posing for a picture at the What Drives Her Luncheon
2019 Speaker Panel and Guests

What Drives Her Luncheon Date and Time

Join in on the conversation! The event occurs from 11:30 a.m -2:45 p.m on Friday, February 7th, during the Chicago Auto Show preview. Automotive professionals, media, and students interested in a career in automotive are welcome. To attend, complete this Google Form. Unable to attend in person? Join in on the Facebook Live Stream on A Girls Guide to Cars page. Click here for the Facebook page.

McCormick Place is located at 2301 S King Dr, Chicago, IL 60616

This post is sponsored by A Girl’s Guide to Cars, however, all opinions are my own.

woman sitting in Toyota vehicle simulator at the Chicago Auto Show
2019 Chicago Auto Show

Third Coast Spice Cafe: Delicious Food, Healthy Options

Third Coast Spice Café is a wise choice when you’re looking for restaurant options in Chesterton, Indiana. Besides, its proximity to the Indiana Dunes State Park and I-94 makes it a convenient stop for visitors. 

Brick restaurant building housing Third Coast Spice Cafe
Third Coast Spice Cafe Chesterton, Indiana

Third Coast Spice Cafe Menu

Chef and owner David Wodrich drew inspiration from his travels and culinary experiences to create the menu. Lisa, his wife, designed the space to reflect the couples’ Northwest Indiana roots and make everyone feel welcome.

breakfast and lunch entrees at Third Coast Spice Cafe
Third Coast Spice Cafe
serves breakfast and lunch

I appreciate the thoughtful consideration given to various dietary restrictions. The menu offers vegan, vegetarian, as well as gluten-free choices. Finding tasty gluten-free options while dining out can be a real challenge.

Gluten-free bread is made at the restaurant and can substitute for any sandwich. It’s also good to know that a gluten-free dessert option is always available. Bonus!

Counter seating at restaurant
Bar Seating

If you suffer from food allergies, there are protocols in place to prevent cross contamination, just let your server know.

Shelf with coffee, tea, hot sauces for purchase
Items for puchase

Other important things to know include they use locally grown, cage-free eggs, in-season local produce, local honey, and whatever other ingredients they can source in our region. David and Lisa are passionate about only providing the best for their diners. Therefore, they scrutinize all food sources. You won’t find any corn syrup, nitrates, nitrites, artificial ingredients, and colors here.

Their standards shine through in the dishes, which are consistently excellent. Sometimes restaurants can be hit or miss, and you never know what to expect from one experience to the next. Third Coast Spice Café is reliable and one of the best Chesterton, Indiana restaurants.

Recommendations

The Garden Omelet is my Jam! It consists of local cage-free eggs, caramelized onions (I swear caramelized onions can go on everything!!!), roasted red bell peppers, balsamic tomatoes, artichoke hearts, spinach, and swiss cheese.

Happy Scramble at Third Coast Spice Cafe:  eggs, bacon, hash browns, and toast
Happy Scrambler

The Happy Scramble is another one of my breakfast choices:  2 scrambled cage-free eggs, harvest grain toast, hash browns, and bacon.  Simple and yummy.

Also, the blueberry pancakes made with whole blueberries at Third Coast Spice Cafe are yummy.

Blueberry pancakes at Third Coast Spice Cafe
Blueberry Pancakes

Lunch recommendations include the Durango Chicken Sandwich: Bit of Swiss sourdough bread, chicken breast, peppered bacon, roasted poblano sauce, jack cheese, and cilantro lime mayonnaise….the fries that come with are the bomb… I’m serious about my French fries!

Veggie sandwich with avocado, tomato, mushrooms, and spinach at Third Coast Spice Cafe in Chesterton, Indiana
Farmer’s Market Sandwich

Veggie lovers will enjoy the Farmer’s Market: Bit of Swiss multigrain bread, portobello mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes, roasted bell peppers, avocado, provolone, and hummus spread.

Bison burger with lettuce, tomato, bacon, and caramelized onions at Third Coast Spice Cafe in Chesterton, Indiana
Build-your-own Bison Burger

Another favorite, the build-your-own bison burger. Local Indiana bison patty, caramelized onion, shredded lettuce, and tomatoes on a pretzel bun. It’s a solid burger. Bison is naturally lower in fat, calories, and cholesterol than beef, and there’s no gamey taste. There are over 20 toppings that you can choose from to top the burger, so be creative.

Don’t even get me started on their salads and savory chili!
I could go on and on in this post, you get the idea.

Seating inside Third Coast Cafe restaurant in Chesterton, Indiana

Third Coast Spice Café has a lot of great dishes.  Real food, made from scratch!

Make sure you stop in and check them out for yourself.  They’re open daily from 6:00 a.m until 3:00 p.m.

Let me know your favorites in the comments. Click here for other restaurants and activities to do in Chesterton, Indiana.

Cheesy Sausage Wonton Bombs

Cheesy Sausage Wonton Bombs Appetizer

These cheesy sausage wonton bombs require only four ingredients, but the flavor is incredible! Demonstrating you don’t need a million ingredients to create food that’ll impress your family and friends. My friend shared this recipe with me forever ago, and its consistently been a favorite in my household. The best part is it’s low cost and doesn’ take much time to prepare.

I’ve taken this appetizer to many Super Bowl parties, and they disappear every time! I use spicy Italian sausage; however, the spice level is mild, so don’t worry about the heat. Even the kids can enjoy this appetizer.

Jump to Recipe
Ingredients for cheesy sausage wonton bombs
Cheesy Sausage Wonton Bombs Ingredients

A simple and delicious appetizer that’s perfect for any party or gathering and will most certainly be devoured. I must warn you; these things are addicting. Don’t be surprised if you’re family attempts to sample them over and over before your guests arrive. I usually have to put my guys out of the kitchen! Try these the next time you need a no-frills appetizer that delivers on taste.

Be sure to let me know what you think in the comments.

Cheesy Sausage Wonton Bombs

Cheesy Sausage Wonton Bomb Ingredients

  • 1 1/4 pound spicy Italian Sausage
  • Package wonton wrappers
  • 1 1/4 cups salsa
  • 1 1/3 cups sharp cheddar cheese
  • sour cream for dipping
  • olive oil spray

Instructions

Place wontons in mini muffin pan and bake
  1. Pre-heat oven to 400 or (air fryer to 370)
  2. Spray mini muffin pan with olive oil spray
  3. line wonton wrappers on over pan openings
  4. place sausage in the middle of each wrapper
  5. add 1 tsp of salsa
  6. top with cheese
  7. pinch the wonton wrapper close and secure at bottom of the muffin cup
  8. bake for 12-15 minutes
  9. If using an air fryer, pinch the wonton wrappers close and line the bottom of the air fryer without overcrowding. Then cook for 6-8 minutes at 370. For reference, I have the GoWise 5.8 qt.
  10. Serve with sour cream for dipping
  11. Enjoy

Click here for additional recipes

pinch the tops of the wontons close before putting in the air fryer
Pinch the top of the wontons shut
Cheesy Sausage Wonton Bombs
Cheesy Sausage Wonton Bombs
Print Recipe
Cheesy Won-ton Sausage Bombs

Cheesy Wonton Sausage Bombs

This crowd-pleasing quick and easy appetizer recipe only requires 4 ingredients.
Prep Time 5 mins
Cook Time 15 mins
Servings 16

Equipment

  • Mini Muffin Pan

Ingredients
  

  • 1 1/4 lb Spicy Italian Sausage uncooked
  • 1 1/4 cup Salsa
  • 1 1/3 cup Sharp Cheddar Cheese
  • 1 package Wonton Wrappers
  • Olive Oil Spray

Instructions
 

  • Pre-heat oven to 400 or (air fryer to 370)
  • Spray mini muffin pan with
    olive oil spray
  • Line wonton wrappers over
    pan openings
  • Place sausage in the middle of each wrapper
  •  Place 1 tsp of salsa over sausage
  • Sprinkle the top with cheese
  • Pinch the wonton wrapper close and carefully push into the bottom of
    muffin cup
  • Bake for 15 minutes
  • If using an air fryer, pinch the wonton wrappers close and put
    in the air fryer for 6-8 minutes at 370
  • Serve with sour cream for dipping
  • Enjoy

Video

Riley’s Railhouse Bed and Breakfast: Rich in Railway History

Original Freight Scale at Riley's Railhouse Bed and Breakfast
Original Freight Scale

Riley’s Railhouse Bed and Breakfast located in the heart of downtown Chesterton is the perfect location for your next stay while visiting the Indiana Dunes National Park.  It’s within walking distance of shopping, restaurants, two wineries, and minutes away from the Indiana Dunes National Park, beaches. The South Shore Train Station, which takes you right into downtown Chicago is also nearby.

Besides, the uniqueness of the Bed & Breakfast makes it an enjoyable and memorable experience.

Lounge has large open kitchen; Riley's Railhouse Bed & Breakfast
Main lounge

History

The building, constructed in 1914 by the New York Central Railway, is situated on the Norfolk Southern double mainline and once served as a freight station.

Extensive labor has gone into restoration and renovations while preserving as much as possible.

Riley's Railhouse Bed and Breakfast Lounge Bar
Main lounge bar

The main lounge displays antiques, railroad memorabilia, art, and the original, functioning freight scaled once used in the train depot. The building is large, but the Rileys have made it comfortable and welcoming. A kitchen in the middle of the lounge serves as a gathering space as well as the bar.

Riley's Railhouse Bed and Breakfast; Delicious breakfast served  to guests in the morning
Breakfast

Riley’s Railhouse Bed and Breakfast Accommodations

Two rooms in the depot serve as guest rooms.  The lower berth sleeps up to two, and the upper berth sleeps up to 5.  The upper berth also has a balcony for train enthusiasts to step onto for a view of the passing trains on the Norfolk railway.  Up to 90 trains pass each day.

No need to worry about excessive train noise.  The installation of triple-pane soundproof windows greatly diminishes the sound.  I was amazed at how much they cut down on it as I watched one train pass with the windows shut.

Riley's Railhouse Bed and Breakfast-Upper Berth sleeps up to 5
Upper Berth Sleeps up to 5
 Riley's Railhouse Bed and Breakfast-Renovated New York Central Boxcar
Renovated New York Central Boxcar

Outside of the depot sits renovated vintage railway Boxcars that serve as guest quarters. Much attention has been given to detail in the beautifully decorated, warm, cozy spaces. The New York Central Boxcar has two guest rooms that each sleeps up to 4.

My family and I stayed in the renovated New York Central Boxcar recently. The mattress, as well as the bedding, was very comfortable.  I slept like a baby!

The next morning we enjoyed delicious breakfast and lovely conversation with the owners and other guests in the lounge.

The warmth and hospitality shown to us made it difficult to pack up and leave.

Riley's Railhouse Bed and Breakfast-Boxcar Accommodations
Boxcar Accommodations

Memorable Experience

You don’t have to be a train enthusiast to stay at Riley’s Railhouse Bed & Breakfast. Beach visitors stay at the Railhouse too. Many guests who weren’t necessarily fans of the railroad upon arrival have departed with a new appreciation for the importance of the railroad in history. Mr. Riley’s knowledge of the virtues of the railroad and the history of the building, coupled with his enthusiasm, prompts you to want to learn more! His love of trains started with his father’s hobby of purchasing and restoring railroad lanterns. There are some on display in the restored depot.

There’s no other space like Riley’s Railhouse Bed and Breakfast in the area. This place is a gem!

Hopefully, you’ll check it out for yourself!

Click here for another overnight option while visiting Indiana Dunes National Park.

Riley's Railhouse Bed and Breakfast is rich in railway history

Noteworthy Mentions:

  • Railfans can request a room with a view of the tracks
  • Soft earplugs provided for guests in each room.
  • The lounge is available for rent

INTERESTING NOTE:
Outside of the building, there are two cameras supplied by Railstream.biz that are positioned facing the tracks east and west allowing viewership of passing trains 24/7 through the camera’s stream.  These are 2 of 10 cameras situated throughout the United States.  People from all over the world including Peru, Germany, England, and Ireland have seen the railstream videos and visited Riley’s Railhouse as a result. You can view the livestream by visiting www.railstream.biz and selecting Riley’s Railhouse from the live video page.

Exploring Southwest Michigan’s Wine Trail with Grape and Grain Tours

Time is precious, and we should use it doing things that leave us feeling happy. As this picture exhibits, wine makes me happy!!!

smiling woman holding wine by a pond on Southwest Michigan Wine Tour
Free Run Cellars

My expression is an accurate description of my Southwest Michigan Wine tour day excursion with Grape and Grain Tours. It was a joyous time! This scenic destination, also known as the Napa of the Midwest, is only an hour and a half drive from Chicago, shorter than many people’s commutes.

Southwest Michigan

Sign that reads trail to winery on Southwest Michigan wine trail
Baroda, Michigan

A Southwest Michigan wine tour is ideal for day trips, vacations, or carefree weekend getaways. The destination is home to over 15 breweries and 21 wineries, with many providing foodie events, entertainment, live music, and festivals. The scene is continually changing and offers a welcome shift in pace and setting. If you’re not yet hip to this fabulous wine destination, you must get in on this secret! And, if you’re thinking, “Michigan only produces sweet wine,” think again. Check out what area vineyards like Dablon Vineyards in Baroda, Michigan, is doing. 

Sandy beach at Lake Michigan
Lake Michigan

The region’s proximity to Lake Michigan enables the grapes to benefit from a “lake effect,” protecting the vines during winter and spring while facilitating a longer growing season. The growing conditions are ideal for varietals found in warmer climates, so you’ll find the dry reds and whites that your heart desires.

woman smiling drinking a glass of wine on Southwest Michigan Wine Trail Tour
Tabor Hill Winery

Although I’ve visited often, my outing with Grape and Grain tours spoiled me rotten and has me re-thinking future visits. You may, by all means, create your itinerary as I have in the past. However, there are obvious benefits to allowing an experienced tour company to take the reigns for you. Namely:

  • Probably most important; your tour guide is the designated driver; therefore everyone in your group can enjoy a full experience
  • No stress or worries. When someone else does all the planning, the only thing you need to do is relax, drink wine, and have fun.
  • Tour guides are knowledgeable of the area and provide useful insight and information. My goal is to always learn something new from each of my experiences.
  • Our tour guide looked out for us, kept track of all of the purchases, and stored them on the bus because let’s face it; we were all drinking.

Grape and Grain Tours

I received a complimentary Southwest Michigan wine tour for myself and a guest in exchange for sharing my experience. However, all opinions are my own.

Grape and Grain tours far exceeded my expectations! The family-owned company, owned by mother and daughter, Kim and Ashley, was established in 2013. As Michigan natives, they have a deep sense of pride and an in-depth knowledge of the wineries they’ve observed prosper. Their desire to showcase the best while providing a first-rate and fun experience could be felt throughout the day. I can’t say enough about my time on this tour; I like the way they do business. During the trip, Kim popped in to greet us; she’s the sweetest.

Grape and Grain tour guide Tami sitting in van during Southwest Michigan Winery Tour
Tour guide Tami

Tour guide Tami was friendly and personable as well; if you can request her, do it! Because Grape and Grain Tours thought of everything, I was able to relax and enjoy the moments fully. I haven’t melted into that level of unwinding in a long time.

I appreciated that Tami was attentive while allowing us space; there wasn’t any hovering. She was masterful with time, and I never felt hurried. Each stop had just the right amount of time, so there was no sense of feeling the need to move on. She kept us right on schedule down to our arrival time back in Chicago.

Southwest Michigan Wine Tour Transportation and Itinerary

Smiling woman exciting Grape and Grain touring van on Southwest Michigan Winery Tour

Grape and Grains Tours have multiple pick-up and drop-off locations for you and your party. They’re flexible and will tailor to your needs. Our pick-up spot was a local Chicago Starbucks, which was perfect because I can’t start my Saturday without coffee. We departed Chicago at 8:00 a.m (9:00 a.m Michigan time) En route, Tami gave us the facts and history of Michigan’s wine production, specifically the wineries of Berrien County. We also had a bit of trivia. Knowing the history of the area heightened my anticipation and enhanced the experience.

Tabor Hill Winery and Restaurant

First stop on our Southwest Michigan Wine Tour was Tabor Hill, one of Michigan’s oldest wineries. The beloved award-winning winery was the first winery in Michigan to specialize in vinifera wines. Vitis vinifera is a common European grape cultivated in many varieties, such as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. We had a good range of dry whites and reds for selection, as well as semi-dry, sparkling, and fruit wines. I stuck mostly to the dry-reds and whites. 

Mom and daughter on Southwest Michigan Wine tour smiling at the camera
Tabor Hill Winery

Tami informed us that Tabor Hill’s Classic Demi-sec and Classic Demi-Red have been staples at the White House since the 1970s. Of course, I had to try them. They were excellent! So much so, I purchased a bottle to take home! Who’d have thought I’d buy a semi-dry to take back over a dry. I surprisingly didn’t find them overly sweet.

Tabor Hill Classic Demi-Sec wine bottles on stocked shelf in Southwest Michigan wine country

Lunch at Tabor Hill Restaurant

We took a tour of the wine cellars before heading to the restaurant for lunch and more wine. The restaurant’s wall of windows enabled us to soak in views of the vineyards while dining. I had the chicken schnitzel, and it was incredible! This winery is for sure on the return list, and the chicken schnitzel will be on repeat. Hopefully, I’ll be able to participate in one of their vineyard tours, the grounds are beautiful!

Free Run Cellars

After lunch, we headed to our second stop, Free Run Cellars. The small-batch winery sits on 3 acres of vineyards. If you’re desiring a smaller intimate setting for your tasting, this is the winery for you. The winery has a lovely outdoor patio overlooking a pond as well as the vineyard. I’d love to return in the warmer months to enjoy a glass in the tranquil surroundings.

Staff at Free Run Cellars describing wine list to seated women during Southwest Michigan Winery Tour
Free Run Cellars

The staff guided us through a selection of 3 tastings of reds and whites.

I really liked their mulled wine and purchased a few of their mulling spices for at-home use. Whenever Fall hits, I’m all about mulled wines.

Round Barn Estate

Large Amish Barn at Round Barn Estate on the Southwest Michigan Winery Trail
Round Barn Estate

The final stop of our tasting tour was Round Barn Estate, named after the attractive turn-of-the-century Amish barn sitting on the grounds.

Tami, our guide referred to this well-know spot as the party place. I agree. They host a variety of events throughout the year. I’ve had some fun times at this estate. I’ve been a fan of this trifecta for a while. Therefore, I mixed things up with tastings of beer and spirits in addition to wine. I knew that I wasn’t leaving without a bottle of their Black Walnut Cream, it’s phenomenal!

It was the perfect way to end our tour. Thank goodness the bus was waiting, and no one had to worry about driving home. Half the bus fell asleep on the way home, lol — another perk of letting someone else manage the details while you handle the fun.

Group of smiling women standing in front of a white Amish barn during Southwest Michigan Winery Tour
Round Barn Estate

Thinking back on that joyous day still brings a smile to my face! Did I mention I only knew a couple of the ladies on our tour? Nothing like getting to know others over wine. So don’t worry if it’s only you and a friend or just yourself on tour, you may make a new friend amongst a group of strangers!

Would I book a trip with Grape and Grain Tours again? Absolutely!

Have you ever visited Southwest Michigan Wine Country? Which wineries are your favorites? Tell me in the comments.

Woman standing in vineyard on Southwest Michigan Wine Tour
Free Run Cellars