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Go Local in Illinois

Food to Factory


In central Illinois, the small town of Effingham offers groups a number of interesting experiences, including gourmet meals and culinary demonstrations.

“One of our biggest assets here is the Firefly Grill, an eco-friendly modern roadhouse restaurant on the shores of a lake,” said Jodi Jackson, director of tourism at the Effingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a beautiful building made out of old recycled barn wood. It’s very farm-to-table.

“They do a lot of group tours and cooking demos. They have a back room that is all glass. The executive chef comes and does a cooking demonstration, and then we can have a three-course meal there.”

Jackson said that many groups pair a demonstration and meal at Firefly Grill with a visit to nearby Tuscan Hills Winery, which offers tours and tastings. The winery allows groups to bring in food and entertainment, so the visit sometimes includes musical performances or murder-mystery dinners.

Continuing the culinary theme, Jackson often sends groups to the John Boos and Company Factory Showroom, a 125-year-old business that has become a favorite of food professionals.

“They make butcher blocks and tables,” she said. “Anything you see on Food Network is a John Boos butcher block made here in Effingham. We give groups a tour of the outlet showroom, and then a John Boos historian comes in and gives them a history of the company itself. Then they do some shopping there.”

Before leaving town, groups should stop in for a visit at the My Garage Museum. The museum was founded by the Yager family, owners of Mid America Motor Works, and showcases its private collection of rare Corvette and Volkswagen automobiles. Highlights include racecars, experimental prototype cars and vehicles that were featured in movies.


Festivals, Food and More


Peoria knows how to party — this central Illinois city throws a variety of festivals throughout the year, several of which make great times for group visits.

“One of the biggest draws for groups each year is the Festival of Lights,” said Heather Swick, marketing assistant at the Peoria Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We have a parade in East Peoria each year that showcases a bunch of lit floats. For the festival, they set all those floats up again, and you can drive through the display and look at them. It takes about 45 minutes.”

June brings the Steamboat Days Festival to the downtown banks of the Illinois River. The three-day event celebrates the city’s history as a commercial port during the heyday of the steamboat era and features carnival rides, music and the Steamboat Classic Road Race.

In September, the Morton Pumpkin Festival highlights Libby’s Pumpkin, a Peoria-based company that is one of the country’s leading suppliers of canned pumpkin. The festival features about 30 events and is attended by an estimated 70,000 people. Visitors will find pumpkin foods of all sorts, including pumpkin-flavored ice cream and pancakes.

Groups that come for the pumpkin festival may also want to sample some apple-flavored specialties at a local farm.

“Tanners Orchard is a pretty big fall attraction up here,” Swick said. “They will do a how-to class for groups where they show them how they make their apple cider and their apple pastries.”

A number of key attractions await groups that visit Peoria at any time of year. The city is the headquarters of the Caterpillar construction equipment company, and travelers can check out its visitors center to learn about the history of the company and the machines it produces.

Swick also suggested that groups visit Wildlife Prairie Park, a sanctuary for animals and plants indigenous to Illinois. Groups can explore a number of walking trails through the sanctuary, and the organization hosts a number of special events year-round.

Finally, many groups enjoy taking a cruise on the Spirit of Peoria, a historic paddle wheeler that offers narrated sightseeing outings on the Illinois river as well as cruises to other cities, such as Alton and Springfield.