On the day of her engagement to Jeff Zhao, Justine Andrus never got to eat the dolmas drizzled with yogurt sauce she had planned to order at the Blind Faith Cafe.
A detour on the way to the restaurant took her to the Merrick Rose Garden on Lake Street, where Zhao, on bended knee, presented her with an engagement ring instead of stuffed grape leaves. The sparkling solitaire diamond once belonged to his grandmother and all thoughts of lunch faded from her mind as he slid the bejeweled band on her finger.
Andrus was surprised by the timing of the proposal, but the months leading up to that moment had been marked by the certainty of their deep affection. She said of their first encounter in March 2018, “I think we both knew it was no ordinary date.”
After meeting on a dating app and discovering they had a mutual friend, the two agreed to have drinks at a Lincoln Park wine bar. Andrus, who works as an academic adviser for Loyola University, was living with her parents in Evanston.
Zhao, an analytics manager for McMaster-Carr, a supply company headquartered in Elmhurst, owned a condo in the Lakeview neighborhood. “I had made a reservation at a little Italian place down the street, just in case the drinks went well,” said Zhao. “We got there around 7:30 [p.m.] and pretty much closed the restaurant down.”
Conversation and wine flowed during a four-hour dinner as Andrus and Zhao shared pasta and the stories of their lives. Later there was more wine and an exceptionally tolerant waitress who tidied up around them.
The restaurant closed, and Andrus told Zhao she would take the Red Line back to Evanston, but he disliked the idea of her traveling alone and went along for the ride.
“I was happy for the excuse to spend more time with her,” he confessed. The couple walked from the train station to Andrus’ house sharing a pair of headphones and playing favorite songs from the musical Hamilton.
The two were eager to see each other again the next night, but Zhao was celebrating his friend’s birthday with a pub crawl, so Andrus arranged to meet him at one of the stops in the city.
After her Uber was struck by another car, she felt shaken and canceled their date, returning home to Evanston. Two hours later Zhao rang the doorbell, bearing a pizza and bouquet of red roses hastily purchased at the local Jewel.
Andrus said, “he knew where I lived from the night before. If I hadn’t liked him so much, it might have been almost creepy.” She happily admitted Zhao and the two played Mario Kart until 3 a.m.
The relationship progressed quickly, and the next year was filled with outings in the city and travel to distant locales.
At the time Zhao worked for United Airlines and the two were determined to take advantage of his travel perks and see as much of the world as they could. Andrus said it was on a trip to China, one of their last excursions together, that they both knew for certain they had found their life partners.
COVID-19 cut their travels short, she said, but every day continued to be a fun adventure. “COVID isolation was really what made our relationship so strong. We quickly realized that no amount of time together would ever be enough.”
The couple spent weekends during lockdown in Evanston with Andrus’ parents, Bob and Janis Tracy-Andrus, walking the lakefront path, playing board games and watching travel slideshows.
They visited Zhao’s hometown of Greenfield, Indiana, where his mom and dad, Ying and Yee, still own a Chinese restaurant. Andrus learned to make dumplings in their kitchen and got to know Zhao’s sisters, Jasmine and Jade.
“The world was quiet,” she said, “so we had the amazing gift of undivided time together.” In June 2020 they became officially engaged but decided to delay the nuptials until the world became a little noisier.
Andrus and Zhao were wed July 9 in front of 130 guests at The Farm at Dover, an idyllic venue in Kansasville, Wis. Under a tree festooned with lights, the bride and groom privately exchanged the vows that they had written for each other, then joined their guests in a rustic barn for the ceremony officiated by family friend Jeff Lupetin. The bride had two maids of honor, Alex Miller and Alana Natke Suitor, both of whom she grew up with in Evanston. Cole Zook was best man.
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