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Creating A Backyard Getaway

By: Leslie Mann

July 1 , 2011

When Jean Rollo's friend brought her English setter, Watson, to see Rollo's new outdoor room, the pooch's antics said it all. Which should I do first, he seemed to debate, take a dip in the pool, grab a hamburger from the grill, beg for a drink from the outdoor refrigerator or help the kids make s'mores? So many decisions. So little time, especially in dog years. Watson did 50 laps around the yard while weighing the decision.

The space outside the back door of this Hinsdale house is the ideal entertaining spot for humans and canines alike, said Rollo. When she hired Hinsdale-based Tiburon Homes LLC to build the house in 2009, an outdoor living space was high on her want list.

"Already, we've had my daughter's end-of-season soccer team party, my niece's wedding and baby showers, a catered Mother's Day brunch so none of the moms had to cook and lots of potlucks," said Rollo. "We intentionally made four seating areas so we can have a lot of people out here at once."

Like many homeowners, Rollo would rather entertain outside. And thanks to the wood-burning fireplace that warms a seating area with a couch and a television, the family uses its outdoor room from May to November.

Although the recession has hurt sales of outdoor amenities, said Stephen Melman, director of economic services of the National Association of Home Builders, outdoor entertaining has moved beyond the concrete patio and charcoal grill. Backyard kitchen features, in particular, said Melman, are hot among homeowners who can afford them and want to feel comfortable when entertaining outside.

"I cook ahead so I can join the guests," said Rollo. "If someone helps himself to a drink or food, I feel like a good hostess because I know he feels at home. I come from a big Italian-Irish family, so there's always plenty of food and we're always the party house."

For Bob and Linda Gilbert, it's also all about family. They bought a house at the Maples at the Sonatas in Woodstock that wraps around a courtyard. "There are 20 of us when the kids and grandkids are here," said Bob. "We used to have formal dinners years ago and still have the dining room table for Christmas and Thanksgiving. But summertime, we're out in the courtyard." In addition to a patio, grill and table, the Gilberts have bird feeders to attract the local feathered fauna. "We prefer being out here in nature to air-conditioning," said Bob.

For Jaci Yeo, "every weekend is a holiday" when she hosts get-togethers on her rooftop deck off the kitchen at her Lexington Square town house in Chicago. "It's the outdoor extension of our kitchen, so everyone winds up outside. When the White Sox have fireworks, we can see them from there."

Other city dwellers share outdoor entertaining areas such as the rooftop deck at 565 Quincy in Chicago, where condo owners can reserve its full kitchen and make their own food or hire caterers. The space includes grills, tables and chairs.

Another high-rise condo building in Chicago, The Aqua, calls its entertaining area the Shore Club. The 80,000-square-foot rooftop deck includes a pool, garden, running track and fire pit. It's first come, first served for the grills. Residents can also play music by plugging iPods into docking stations. Or they can rent a party room that opens to the deck and has a full kitchen.

Clearly, the barren patio dotted with a few shrubs is gone in favor of outdoor areas with well-planned landscaping.

Homeowners can use plants to create virtual walls, ceilings and floors, said landscape designer Tony Lo Bello, of Mariani Landscape in Lake Bluff.

"For walls, boxwood is formal while lilacs are my favorite informal (plants)," he said. "For the ceiling, stay away from dense trees like sugar maples and go with honey locusts for a dabbled light."

Lo Bello recommends gravel floors for homeowners who are willing to deviate from a brick or stone floor. "It's half the cost and gives you a nice crunchy sound, like you're in an English garden."

To keep pests at bay, Lo Bello eschews birdbaths, where mosquitoes can lay eggs, and sweet-smelling plants, which lure bees. He prefers sweetbay magnolia trees and David Austin English roses, which are fragrant to people but less attractive to bugs. Some people believe citronella geraniums discourage mosquitoes, but Lo Bello is not among them.

The focus on outdoor entertaining also has created a flock of furnishings that can withstand the weather. Even rugs are weatherproof. Ballard Designs, for example, has a line of recycled polypropylene rugs in geometric patterns and animal and floral prints.

Electronics have moved outside too. Abt Electronics, a Glenview-based electronics and appliance retailer, carries SunBrite outdoor LCD televisions that start at $1,795.

Predictably, that mainstay of outdoor entertaining, the outdoor grill, is "bigger and better," said Abt sales manager Steve Shapiro. "One that sells for $19,000 does everything but go to the store to get the food," he said.

Other outdoor components include storage cabinets to hold ingredients and utensils, pizza ovens, wine coolers and ice-makers. Most are downsized to fit under outdoor countertops. U-Line, for example, makes refrigerators that are 34 inches high.

For outdoor furniture, the Castelle line (available at Chicago-area garden retailers) is made of wrought aluminum, which looks like wrought iron but is lighter and does not rust. Its fabric cushions do not fade or stain and can even be cleaned with bleach.

Ikea carries rattan pieces in formal and funky styles. And you'll be sitting pretty in Chicago-based Civility Studio's colorful baroque outdoor armchairs and ottomans that are playful and chic.

Margie Lill of Plainfield, grew weary of her patio table and umbrella blowing away, so she had her contractor, DJK Groundworks, of Naperville, build a table with a Lannon stone base and a granite top. For shade, a cedar pergola was installed.

Lill's table, combined with an outdoor fireplace and beanbag platforms (Pittsburgh Steelers logo for her, Chicago Bears for her husband), make her backyard the place for impromptu parties.

"Often, it's last-minute," she said. "We have lots of neighbors with kids who are our kids' ages. Everyone brings food. We have a cold one while we watch the kids grow up."

© Copyright 2011 The Chicago Tribune