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Wisconsin Has a Palace of Cheese
Mars Cheese Castle is the ultimate roadside attraction for foodies
Halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee, on the stretch of I-94 that connects the two cities, you’ll find a castle.
Inside, you’ll find golden treasures of the dairy kind, along with everything that makes Wisconsin a national — yet sometimes overlooked — treasure for foodies.
The state still lives up to its “America’s Dairyland” moniker, with about 7,000 dairy farms. Wisconsin is also known for its beer and meat and you’ll find all of these and more at the massive 25,000 square foot roadside attraction.
In fact, plan on making a day of Mars Cheese Castle — or at least stop for lunch. In addition to a cheese shop, Mars Cheese Castle has a restaurant where you can get a locally made bratwurst, a Reuben, a grilled cheese made with aged Wisconsin cheddar, or fried cheese curds — all priced at under $10.
There’s also a bar that offers a good selection of local beers including an exclusive Red Planet ale from Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery.
There is plenty of roadside kitsch factor (and Instagrammable moments) to keep you busy. Inside the castle, you’ll find stained glass, knight’s armor, a perfectly set feasting table fit for a king inside the wine room, and (naturally) a giant talking cow named Isabel that rattles off cheese-themed trivia.
Look beyond all the Disney-on-lactose aspects, however, and you’ll find a serious cheese shop that’s been run by the same family for three generations.
In 1947, Mario and Martha Ventura opened a cheese shop in an old schoolhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The couple, who dreamed of one day owning a “castle”, found success, adding a tavern to the establishment. Ten years later, the shop burned down and they rebuilt in a former gas station. Over the years, the business expanded and the Venturas event opened an adjacent cheese-themed motel at one point.
In the early 2000s, the state of Wisconsin notified the Ventura family that they had to, once again, move the shop because of an expansion of the Interstate. The family decided to finally build the castle that Mario and Martha has dreamed about.
Now, the 25,000-square-foot castle — run by Mario and Martha’s grandson Michael Ventura — offers over 700 different cheeses. Though there are cheeses from all over the world, the best-sellers are from local Wisconsin farms.
As a cheese lover, no trip to Mars is complete without gorging yourself on cheese and sausage samples and getting some of the freshest cheese curds known to mankind. A Wisconsin delicacy, cheese curds are the curd section that’s left after the separation of curds and whey. Though they have a cheddar-like taste, they’re not yet considered cheese. Fresh cheese curds are rubbery and squeak when you bite, so it’s easy to spot the ones fresh from the cheesemaker: If they don’t squeak, they’re not fresh.
If you can’t get to Wisconsin, Mars has an online store where you can stock up on cheese curds, aged Wisconsin cheddar, bratwurst, cheese bread, danish kringles, and more.
But real cheese lovers — and lovers of great roadside attractions — should make the trip, which is a short 90-minute trip from Chicago.
It’s not every day that you can say you drove to a castle, had a beer, and got cheese advice from a cow.