Tips to Throw a Party like the Pros

By Kristine Hansen

Warm weather equals more frequent parties and gatherings— especially if you live on the lake with those scenic views. But if you want to spruce up your next soirée, who better to ask than the pros when planning your next party? After all, party planners and event organizers have likely endured—and recovered from—event snafus.

Start by taking care of yourself first. This is not the time to
try out a Julia Child recipe or embark on home renovation or landscaping projects. David Caruso, owner of Dynamic Events by David Caruso in Milwaukee, encourages clients to focus on “simple, easy and delicious.”

“Don’t plan for more than you can handle,” he says. “No one’s going to have fun at the party if the host isn’t having fun. Use items in your current household inventory to spruce up your table settings.” And don’t forget to stock up on ice, garbage bags, napkins and cleaning agents for spills, he says.

Picking a theme helps streamline planning. This will make all subsequent decisions easier. If you opt for a Tiki party, you won’t be swayed by farm-chic Americana decorations and can start on that tropical fruit platter.

Make as much food as possible ahead of time or recruit help. Got a shy person at the party with a knack for grilling? Designate him or her as grill master. Lean toward grab-and-go items with a chalkboard outlining the menu. These should either fit on a small plate or be portioned into small containers “that people can take off the food station and eat from,” Caruso says. Along those lines, he likes to wrap cutlery sets in a napkin and tie with a bandana or ribbon, and prop in a galvanized bucket, so guests aren’t digging around for a spoon.

Charlie Lorenzi, president of Celebration on Wells Catering in Lake Geneva, suggests doing most of your food shopping at the Thursday farmers’ market (if you live in Lake Geneva, or, venture to your local farmers’ market). You can even pick up fresh flowers to set out on tables. Making the shopping fun and more like an outing than a chore might coax you into relaxation, not stress.

When cleaning the interior of your home, says Mallory Wedel, owner and lead designer for Elevate Events in Madison, know that “folks will always congregate around the food and drink supply, so make sure you aren’t setting those items out in a spot that could create a bottleneck.”

Don’t be shy about sticking to a budget for décor. Nobody has to know how much you spend— and on what. Buying items that you’ll only use for the party means either cluttering your home after or loading up the car for a Goodwill run. “You don’t want to go out and buy a bunch of games and then have to store them in your garage and basement,” says Caruso.

Dollar stores are your friend when you want to build out the theme through paper napkins and other accessories. Caruso also scores inexpensive but fun items at Michael’s, Walmart and Target’s Dollar Spot (near the store’s entrance).

Most likely your party will be all ages. “I like having a few things at yard parties that are interactive. Even things like croquet and bean- bag toss,” says Caruso, “are friendly for all ages and abilities.” Siblings can pair up or a younger guest be matched with an older guest. Got a pool? The latest craze are inflatable flamingos and unicorns, which can net you some social-media traction if that’s what you are angling for. Another game that’s easy to create from scratch is DIY Lawn Twister.

“Give them something to talk about,” advises Caruso. “Having another layer to your party gives it a certain entertainment value.”

Big-Batch Drinks

Drinks you can make ahead of time and in large- scale format save you from setting up a full bar or designating a bartender. Mallory Wedel, owner and lead designer of Elevate Events in Madison, likes Geoffrey Zakarian’s rum punch recipe with basil and watermelon, which you can make ahead of time or in batches (see right page for recipe). In general, to determine how much alcohol you need, consider the time of day, says Wedel. An afternoon soirée might have alcohol as a secondary option, while an evening party will up the drinks consumed. By plugging in the guest count, types of drinks and the party duration, Evite’s Drink Calculator tells you just how much alcohol to buy.

And you can’t go wrong with Wisconsin craft beers. Wines in an ice bucket allow guests to help themselves. Studio Winery’s tasting room in Lake Geneva lets you sample five wines for $8—or the tasting is free with a two-bottle purchase. Lemonade is a perfect refreshing nonalcoholic alternative and can be amped up with fresh mint or basil leaves. Caruso likes to put edible flowers into ice-cube trays for a burst of color in drinks.

Rum Punch

Courtesy of Geoffrey Zakarian and the Food Network


  • 8 cups (64 oz.) white rum
  • 4 cups (32 oz.) watermelon purée (see below)
  • 3 cups (24 oz.) orange juice
  • 1 cup (8 oz.) lime juice

Watermelon purée

  • 5 cups fresh watermelon, cubed
  • 5 oz. orange-flavored cognac liqueur, such as Grand Marnier
  • 15 fresh basil leaves, shredded

Muddle the watermelon, liqueur and basil in a glass until you reach a thick and slightly chunky purée consistency.


Mix and stir the rum, watermelon purée, orange juice and lime juice. Serve over ice in chilled cocktail glasses.

Good Eats

Your party should ideally serve a main dish, a side dish and dessert.

Lorenzi likes the convenience of crudités (sliced or whole raw vegetables with a vinaigrette or dipping sauce) as a side dish, based on whatever’s in season. This satisfies vegan, vegetarian and health-minded diets. Other side dishes he says, are bruschetta (cut and toast baguette slices the day prior) using farmers’ market tomatoes, or, deviled eggs or hard-boiled eggs with a side of radishes. “Get them really, really cold and put them out last,” he says about the eggs.

“Spinach artichoke dip is a tried-and-true standby in our home,” says Wedel, “and is a great way to give your guests some options (pair with veggies or pita chips). Plus, it works great in the slow cooker.” Avoid appetizers that require lots of heating or cutting or put you in the kitchen for an extended period. “You also want to be sure that you plan your menu so that you’re not waiting to put everything in the oven 15 minutes before guests arrive. Do your best to stagger cook times, or serve only a few warm options.”

Mini-size brats from Wilson Farm Meats in Elkhorn go well with dilly beans, says Lorenzi. Another easy main dish he suggests is grilled tenderloin topped with dry mustard and served with horseradish cream sauce.

Author: atthelake

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