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A new luxury campground near Chicago nets a big-name chef

Cleetus Friedman wants to take you camping.

Morgan Olsen
Written by
Morgan Olsen
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Situated 100 miles southwest of Chicago, a 96-acre luxury campground is taking shape in Tonica, Illinois. Jennifer and Tim Bias bought the property back in 2017 and have painstakingly transformed the former brickyard into an upscale campsite and events venue, which is set to open in spring 2021. Camp Aramoni is a step up from glamping, thanks to 11 private semi-permanent tents that are outfitted with hardwood floors, plush king-size beds and en-suite bathrooms.

Guests won’t have to worry about cooking over a fire either, as the Biases have recruited celebrated Chicago chef Cleetus Friedman (City Provisions, Fountainhead, Theater on the Lake) as their director of hospitality. In his words, Friedman has been charged with overseeing the “look, feel, taste and smell of the property.”

Cleetus Friedman
Photograph: Jan Salazar

The Chicago chef met the Bias family by chance, after being connected by a mutual friend. Friedman decided he wanted to see Camp Aramoni for himself and spent four hours wandering the grounds with Jennifer and her daughter, Stephanie, the camp's venue manager.

"I was so inspired by her vision that she had no idea what she tapped into. That was a Friday. On Monday, I sent her a nine-page proposal on what I thought Camp Aramoni could be." Friedman says. "It encompasses every part of the hospitality business and everything that I love doing."

Two weeks later, Friedman was officially hired. His role oversees every element of hospitality, from concierge and housekeeping to events and food and beverage. With almost 100 acres to play with, he's having fun with the possibilities. Want to hole up in your tent and order room service all weekend? Done. If you'd rather hit the hiking trails and enjoy a champagne-fueled picnic, that can be arranged, too. If you can dream it, they can probably do it—whether that's a cooking demo, a private yoga class, a mani-pedi or a wine tasting.

"We don't use the term 'glamping,' because glamping says that you're bringing all your stuff to a really nice place. Luxury camping is taking that one step further and saying, 'Don't bring anything.' We're going to give you the best food and the best beverage and the best service while you're camping," Friedman says. "We want to try to replicate a five-star experience in the middle of the Illinois valley."

I’m more passionate about it today than I was when I came up with the crazy idea.

For Jennifer and her family, it's all about creating a place where people can come to disconnect from their phones and reconnect with each other. Another key element of the experience is homaging the history of the property, which once housed Ristokrat Clay Products Company from 1870 to 1981. Guests will still be able to spot relics of yesteryear—the private events space, Bricks & Stones, was once the brickyard's blacksmith shop; the building's coal-fired brick kilns remain. 

“When we started researching the history of the brickyard, it was so important for us to maintain that and keep that history alive," Jennifer says. "We reached out to folks in the area who had worked there and had roundtable discussions with them. Just like we’re restoring the buildings, we just want to save the history of this place.”

Like so many other small businesses, Camp Aramoni has faced some complications due to COVID-19—especially when it comes to hosting events. But the Biases and Friedman firmly believe they've tapped into a market that will be booming for years to come: remote regional travel that offers plenty of room for social distancing.

“Like with any project, you run into hiccups, but my passion for this never wavered. At no point did I stop and think, ‘Was this a good idea?’ I’m more passionate about it today than I was when I came up with the crazy idea,” Jennifer says.

Camp Aramoni is slated to open next spring in Tonica, Illinois, but you can start staking out your tent or dreaming up an intimate event now.

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