50 in 50: Illinois. Land of Lincoln. And Really Cool Hats.

I adore Chicago. It is the pulse of America.--Sarah Bernhardt

Illinois, "Land of Lincoln," truly reflects our country. Its complexities. Its challenges. Its uniqueness. In a 2007 analysis of Census Bureau data, the Associated Press looked at each state to determine how closely it "matched national levels on 21 demographic factors, including race, age, income, education, industrial mix, immigration and the share of people living in urban and rural areas." The rankings were then combined to determine the state that best mirrored the country as a whole. The winner? Illinois.

And if Illinois mirrors the country, nineteenth century French actress Sarah Bernhardt nailed it all those years ago when speaking of that state's largest city: Chicago truly is the pulse of America. The third most populous city in the U.S. (2,695,598), the subject of one of Sinatra's most memorable songs, Chicago deserves the spotlight. For expert guidance I turned to a long-time family friend, the multi-talented Heather Bennett. How she managed to squeeze writing this informative guest blog post into her already-hectic life I'll never know. A heartfelt thank you, Heather. Enjoy, CAMJ readers.

Sweet Home Chicago by Heather Bennett

For almost 20 years Illinois has been my home. Having lived on both coasts and in the middle of the country, it was easy to move to Chicago after graduating from the University of Illinois' MBA program. I love Chicago! The first time I came here I was 13 years old and fell in love with the place. It was and still is breathtaking.

Chicagoans love our city and love sharing our countless blessings. World class museums. The free Lincoln Park zoo. Sports teams: Bulls/Bears/Sox/Fire and, of course, the 108-year-streak-breaking, World Series-winning CUBS! I can still hear the streets around me exploding with noise the night they won. Chicago features art, culture; the world-famous blues nightclub Kingston Mines and equally-famous comedy club / improvisation school The Second City. And let's not forget Chicago's incredible food and festivals. No where else in the world celebrates St. Patrick's Day like we do.

The Chicago River's dyed green every year for St. Patrick's Day.

In 1909 Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett created the Plan of Chicago, which reflected Burnham’s vision that every citizen of Chicago should be within walking distance of a park. With over 14 miles of waterfront parkland and 580 parks, Chicago shows a dedication to recreation that's unparalleled. My morning walks along the lakefront remind me how much I love this city.

Chicago Lakefront (Source: HHB)

Here are a few more beautiful reasons I love Illinois:

Waterfall at Starved Rock State Park, Illinois (Source: Starved Rock State Park)

Starved Rock State Park: Continually voted as the best attraction in the State of Illinois, Starved Rock is situated along the Illinois River, a 90-minute drive west of Chicago. Fourteen of the 18 canyons feature waterfalls and stunning views of the river are scattered along the trails. Definitely worth the drive!

The 606 at night. (Source: The 606)

The 606: A recreation trail built on the elevated tracks of the abandoned Bloomingdale Line was designed to bring Logan Square, a Chicago neighborhood with the least amount of open space per resident, up to the City of Chicago’s green space codes. The City started applying for federal grants, a neighborhood association called Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail went to work and the communities around the trail (Humboldt Park, Bucktown and Wicker Park) banded together to make the trail a reality.

Over 3 miles of elevated trails friendly to non-motorized wheels and walkers/runners connect four diverse and unique Chicago neighborhoods. The creators envisioned city kids learning to ride their bikes, an easier commute for the city’s workforce and a way to bring communities together through recreation, art and the beauty of parks. Daniel Burnham would have loved it!

Opening Day at The 606, Chicago, Illinois (Source: The 606)

And now on to some of the best Made in Illinois products. I know I'm forgetting a few million others, so please share your favorites too.

Laser designed Floor Mat (Source: Weathertech)

WeatherTech: Weathertech proudly manufactures its accessories for cars and trucks in Illinois. Headquartered in Bolingbrook, the company's notable products include its laser-measured, custom-fitting floor mats. Anyone who has ever attempted to remove ground-in food or mud (or a whole cup of coffee!) from the floor of their vehicle needs to have this product. Technologically created to channel spills to a reservoir to avoid damaging the car and easily removable for quick cleanup, these mats are game changers for easy car maintenance. WeatherTech's website is very user friendly.

Vosges Dark Chocolate Collection (Source: Vosges)

Vosges Haut-Chocolat: With ingredients ranging from curry to bacon to coconut ash, Krug champagne to absinthe to wasabi, the unique flavors and inspired stories behind these indulgences are without parallel. Founder and chocolatier Katrina Markoff studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and then traveled the world, returning to Chicago to create Vosges Haut-Chocolat based on her travels and work overseas. All the truffles and bars are made in Chicago. Located in the perpetually chic Lincoln Park shopping district, the flagship store offers lovely personal service, but Vosges can easily be obtained at O’Hare Airport and small boutiques as well as online.

Domaine Dupage French Country Ale (Source: Two Brothers Brewing Company)

Two Brothers Brewery: Founded over 20 years ago by brothers Jim and Jason Ebel, Two Brothers Brewing Company was one of the first craft breweries to introduce unique beer styles to the Chicago Market. The company remains independent in a world of consolidating beverage companies with their award-winning products and four (soon to be five) restaurants, most located in the western suburbs of Chicago. Their beer offerings include 8 year-round, 12 seasonal and more…my go-to for a party is Domaine Dupage, a crowd pleasing French Country Ale. Although it comes in bottles, I recommend ordering a keg from your local beverage supplier ahead of time.

The Hyde Park (Source: Optimo Hats)

Optimo Hats: From blues legends to blockbuster movie stars, wearers of Optimo Hats must know the brand offers something special. Founder Graham Thompson--who took over the business and studied under legendary Chicago hatter Johnny Tyus--uses traditional hat-making equipment and techniques to create hats of the highest quality. On a personal note, my most treasured possessions in high school were my grandfather’s old felt hats from the 1940's. I wore them with pride and a sense of honor for my family. I can still smell the faint musty tobacco scent and feel the sturdy but soft brim as I placed it on my head. Optimo Hats' dedication to vintage design and quality materials remind me of a bygone era; a time when hats were made to last for generations.


Driving past the 606 trail the other day, I told my kids how amazing it was that such a beautiful and useful place was created by reusing the train tracks. A huge proponent of reduce, reuse and recycle, I love seeing an old building or product given new life. My personal version of supporting "Made in the USA" is to shop at thrift stores, swap with friends and even “alley dive” (dumpster diving). Renters' cast-offs fill Chicago's alleys at the end of each month. During my treasure hunts I have found everything from a canvas photo of a canoe (perfect lake house decor) to massive etched glass urns (new dining table centerpieces) to a tiny wooden desk and chair (easily repainted). Many thrift/second hand stores benefit local non-profits. It's a great way to multitask: support admirable philanthropic causes and pour money directly into the local economy.

Come visit Illinois! Hike to a waterfall, bike through outdoor art, enjoy a pint, buy chocolates for a friend, outfit your car or leave stylish in a new hat created just for you.

Heather Bennett works as a small business consultant in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and four kids.