In 2017 when Jennifer and Tim Bias bought 96 acres of lush forest and wildlife terrain along the Vermilion River in Tonica, a village of under 1,000 in Central Illinois, their plan was to turn it into an upscale campground and event space complete with a chef-driven food-and-beverage program and safari-style tents decked out with upscale amenities such as king-sized beds, hardwood floors, en-suite bathrooms, and air conditioning.
Now, four years later, Camp Aramoni nears completion, fulfilling the couple’s dreams of an ideal getaway with plenty of outdoor space to roam freely located a short drive from Chicago, St. Louis, and other Midwest cities. The luxury campground’s summer opening happens to blend with that pandemic need for a socially distanced vacation.
The venue’s website bills Camp Aramoni as “the first and only luxury campground in Illinois.” Wine tastings and farm-to-table meals are among the amenities. Luxury has a price starting at $450 for two guests nightly, and $100 per additional guest per night. The cost covers a private tent, a “chef-driven” breakfast, and bicycle and lawn games.
Campers can find other sites in the state for glamping — a trendy term the camp is avoiding. Camp Aramoni’s staff aims to take luxury camping to a new level thanks to the hire of noteworthy local chef. Chicago chef Cleetus Friedman (Theatre on the Lake, City Provisions) heard the Bias’s message loud and clear. Friedman, himself an enthusiast of the outdoors, toured the property, which is on the site of a former 19th century brickyard and contains a number of original historic elements, including huge coal-fired brick kilns and a blacksmith shop. Not too long after that visit, Friedman became director of hospitality for Camp Aramoni, scheduled to open early August.
“This is an absolutely marvelous piece of property that could be a national if not international hit,” says Friedman. “If you take this experience in any other year, people would be, ‘oh my goodness, this is incredible.’ But you take it post-pandemic, where you can drive here and have a few luxurious days of vacation without even seeing anybody if you don’t want to with access to hiking, biking, and getting pampered with food-and-beverage pairings and it takes on a more profound significance.”
Camp Aramoni’s various food and beverage areas under Friedman’s watch include the Barn, a refined rustic lodge that will offer breakfast, grab-and-go items ideal for hikers headed to nearby Starved Rock State Park. There’s also a general store and a demo kitchen. Then there’s the Burlington, a 1961 Airstream Overlander RV converted into a coffee and tea bar that also serves cocktails.
The event space, Bricks & Stones, will also offer a walkup food window, an outdoor kitchen with a wood-burning oven and grill, and a large deck and seating area overlooking a meadow. Friedman is especially excited for concerts, art shows, and wine tastings under the event space’s covered pavilion. Recently, Friedman began hosting a monthly supper club series serving four-course meals.
“It’s like a dream project to take these things I have done and put them in this magical setting,” he says. “Our goal is we want everyone who comes through our gates to feel like they’re being hugged.”
While Friedman is currently in the research-and-development stage for Camp Aramoni’s various menus, he plans on taking full advantage of local ingredients, including those coming from his five produce beds, honey from the on-site aviary and eggs from the venue’s chickens. A recent purchase of three cows from a nearby farm will also find their way onto the menus eventually. “We are taking a huge step in sustainability,” he says.
Sample dishes include zucchini hummus with citrus crab, pear and fennel salad with roasted portobello mushrooms, and bacon smoked with wood from rum barrels sourced from a nearby distillery. Friedman’s Israeli aunt inspires the recipe for an “everything” shakshuka breakfast pizza cooked in the wood-fired oven. He also plans on doing regular pizza and burger nights that he hopes will attract locals as well as Camp Aramoni guests.
While the site won’t open until the summer, the site has hosted events giving guests a preview to what to expect. Tickets remain for an April 9 dinner featuring wines from August Hill Winery and Illinois Sparkling Co. The event’s capped at 20 to preserve social distancing.
For Friedman, the campsite represent the next natural step in the evolution of his career.
“I feel like hospitality is going to look and feel a little bit different and it’s up to us to figure out what it is and write the next chapter,” says Friedman of his and fellow chefs’ role post-COVID. “This project Camp Aramoni is an incredible opportunity for me to redefine what hospitality means, what it is, and how it looks and feels.”
Camp Aramoni, 809 N. 2199 Road, Tonica, scheduled for an August opening