Local party expert offers tips for elegant outdoor gatherings

Chicagoans have endured too many days of winter to limit their backyards to barbequing. When the weather is warm, the green space around a home can be transformed into a lavish lawn party worthy of Jay Gatsby himself.

“A lawn party, to me, is one of those old-fashioned Jazz Age-type of events,” said entertaining and design expert Debi Lilly. “Summer is really our season to do that in the Chicago area.”

Her full-service event management company A Perfect Event is based in the city and organizes parties throughout the suburbs. She says with the right amount of planning, anyone can throw an elegant outdoor bash.

For starters, a backyard’s open space affords the host the chance to get creative, especially with seating.

Groupings of furniture brought from indoors or rented can create chic areas for lounging. The unexpectedness of an outdoor dining room may also cause guests to “ooh” and “ahh.”

But for casual parties, don’t worry about having a chair for everyone, Lilly says. Instead, encourage mingling by placing highboy tables around the yard.

When setting up, it’s best to keep in mind how furniture will affect the flow of the party.

For example, Lilly recommends placing a bar close to the entrance. This way when guests arrive “they’ll be greeted with a cocktail and something beautiful and interesting rather than having to walk through the lawn and back,” Lilly says.

A large glass jar with a fresh mixed drink that partygoers can self serve gives them something to do and sip on right away.

Lilly’s garden cocktail du jour is inspired by the Moscow Mule: Real Russian Vodka (produced in Chicago) paired with a ginger beer with fresh mint leaves or sliced cucumbers for an extra kick of flavor.

Unique drinks help break the ice. “It’s fun to share something people may not have seen,” Lilly says. “It really gets people talking and having a great time.”

For decorations, party planners can take advantage of summer’s colorful bounty by sourcing locally-grown flowers and produce. Arranging dalias or lilies in glassware is one simple and quick way to spruce up tables.

A more green option, Lilly says, is taking a large bowl or serving platter and creating a pyramid of seasonal produce, like tomatoes, with herbs tucked in for texture. The foods can then be later used for cooking.

As far as food goes, “delicious and easy is the rule for me,” Lilly says.

A menu of items that can be prepared in advanced, easily served outdoors and enjoyed at room temperature is foolproof. Mayonnaise or cream-based dishes are a no-no, Lilly says.

Two of her favorite dishes are grilled pork tenderloin and an arugula salad topped with chunks of watermelon, sliced radishes, feta cheese and mint leaves. Grilling marinated fresh veggies from a farmers market is another no-fuss way to feed guests, she says.

Recipes of the drinks and dishes printed on cardstock and tied with twine are instant party favors for guests.

But the decor no outdoor party should be without are insect-repellent candles, Lilly reminds.

Not only do citronella candles deter insects from crashing your event, but “every party looks better in candlelight,” Lilly says.

The candles generally come in all sizes, and when placed on the ground can help establish the perimeter of the party. Candles in lanterns strung from trees, a la “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” add an aura of elegance.

Lilly recommends going a step further to keep bugs away by spraying the grass with an insecticide at least three days before the event.

One detail that can rarely be planned or predicted is weather. To avoid panicking when the elements work against you is to plan in advance for worst-case scenarios.

“In Chicago, sadly, you always need a ‘Plan B’ with anything outdoors,” Lilly says. “So think of how the party can be a success inside if it’s rainy.”

If the opposite occurs and temperatures skyrocket, make “cooling zones.” This can be done outdoors by creating shade with big umbrellas.

It’s also smart to keep ice and cold drinks well-stocked throughout the duration of the party, Lilly says.

Lastly, just because an event is outdoors doesn’t make it OK to skimp on formalities. Whether invitations go out by mail or electronically, Lilly says it’s polite to give guests at least one month’s notice of the event.

“This is really something that’s becoming a lost art as we’re used to getting invitations for next week events,” she explains. “But you as the host should want to put the invitation out there thoughtfully. It sets the tone for the party.”

For additional party planning tips, Lilly recommends visiting www.bizbash.com.

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