cheese castle
Behold: The Cheese Castle | Mars Cheese Castle
Behold: The Cheese Castle | Mars Cheese Castle

Swap Catapults for Camembert at Wisconsin’s Beloved Cheese Castle

This family-owned roadside oasis has been stacking the cheddar for 75 years.

I wish I could say that Mars Cheese Castle was made of actual cheese. Unfortunately, it’s not. But that doesn’t stop hungry road trippers from flocking to this Wisconsin landmark to experience a royal, cheesy welcome.

Cruise down I-41 just north of the Illinois border and you can’t miss the towering ode to dairy—which comes complete with turrets, parapets, little triangle flags, and hundreds of cheeses, from the stinky to the sharp and everything in between. According to Mars Cheese Castle general manager Michael Ventura, they welcome visitors from all over the world. “Driving on the highway, people see our sign and wonder, ‘Mars, cheese, castle—why are those three words together?” he says. “‘We have to stop and see what it is.’”

Mars Cheese Castle’s iconic roadside sign. | Flickr/Ben Schumin

Roll across the drawbridge, past the grand entrance secured by suits of armor, and through the hall decked out with stately thrones, and you’ll find yourself immersed in a world of rinds and whey and squeaky fresh curds, plus loads of Wisconsin-brewed beer. Everywhere you look, cheese experts are poised to assist you in building the perfect charcuterie board, pointing out all the different varieties, processes, and accoutrement along the way. It’s a veritable Provolone paradise, a Havarti heaven, a Neufchatel nirvana—what, too cheesy?

Mars Cheese Castle founders Martha and Mario J. Ventura Sr. with Wisconsin Agriculture’s Alice in Dairyland, date unknown. | Mars Cheese Castle

Meet the king of the (cheese) castle

In 1947, after a stint as a cook in the navy, present-day general manager Michael Ventura’s grandfather opened a humble cheese shop in downtown Kenosha, Wisconsin. He soon expanded into an abandoned school house before upgrading to a gas station, moving closer and closer to the highway, where he assumed travelers would pass by. And, by golly, was he right.

The original Mars Cheese Castle, photographed in 1989. | Flickr/Bart Everson

Inspired by his Italian heritage as well as the medieval castles he’d seen while touring Italy, Ventura’s grandfather started adding towers, defense battlements, and parapets to the building, hoping customers would feel transported when they walked in. And 75 years later, it’s an illusion that’s aged finer than the natural, washed rind on a wheel of Uplands’ Pleasant Ridge Reserve.

Construction underway in 2010. | Mars Cheese Castle

Forced to move due to a planned 2011 interstate expansion, the family chose to build an even more ornate Fontina fortress some 50 yards away, this one twice the size of the original and stocked with a watchtower filled with wine. A decade later, during the height of the pandemic, Ventura went so far as to bring on local actors sidelined from their regular Renaissance Fair gigs to pose as kings, jesters, and sorcerers around the shop—yet another layer of fantastical flare.

A Bloody Mary, cheese spread, and a beer back—the ultimate Wisconsin trifecta. | Mars Cheese Castle

Pair your cheese with beer, like a good Wisconsinite

While there are countless souvenirs to peruse, both Cheese Castle-centric and Wisconsin-related, the real reason to visit this Parmesan palace is, of course, the food. But before you even get to the cheese hall, prepare to encounter candies, jams, hot sauces, mustards, apple butters, and more.

Cheese is only the tip of the iceberg at the Mars Cheese Castle. | @jpellgen(@1179_jp)

There’s also a bakery slinging freshly made cookies, croissants, and Danish Kringles—a local delicacy brought over by Danish settlers. And if all of this makes you extra hungry, there’s also an onsite tavern hawking hulking sandwiches and drinks to match.

Wisconsin’s New Glarus proudly dominates Mars’ beer section. | Mars Cheese Castle

The impressive local beer selection includes quite a few brews from coveted Wisconsin mainstay New Glarus Brewing Company. “They could probably go national, but they don’t on purpose,” says Ventura. “They’ve dedicated themselves to becoming a local brand only sold in Wisconsin.” His favorite New Glarus release? Spotted Cow Farmhouse Ale, naturally.

Fresh cheese curds steal the show in these parts. | Wisconsin Cheese

Go curd wild

In the cheese hall—which is much grander than the average dairy nook at your local grocery store, mind you—lurks several hundred types of cheese, all produced locally. I even found a chicken soup-flavored cheddar in one of the fridges. Another item that has guests a little bewildered is the cheese fudge, which tastes more chocolate than cheese, but with a creamier texture.

The refrigerated section always has plenty of cold-packed curds on hand. | Visit Kenosha

The most popular item, by far, is the farm-fresh cheese curds, which are delivered each morning. “There’s nothing like fresh curds—they squeak in your teeth,” Ventura notes. If the fresh stuff is out of stock by the time you arrive, hit the refrigerated section for a packaged lineup spanning everything from spicy barbecue to tomato-basil.

While plenty of mild, younger cheddars abound, what stands apart here are the deeply aged ones. Ventura singles out a 15-year-old option that’s firm, dry, and crumbly, with a more concentrated flavor.

And if you’re not sure where to begin, simply turn to the trusty and thoroughly educated Cheese Castle staff. “We help them engage their senses,” Ventura explains. “We have them try the cheeses and ask about flavors, textures, pairings; how they’d serve it; what they’d cook with it.”

Is there anything better than a fully loaded cheese board? | Wisconsin Cheese

Curate the ultimate cheese board

Ventura admits that, despite having a cheese store in the family, he grew up eating Kraft Singles. But now that he’s a pro, I asked him for a few pointers on making the perfect cheese plate.

For a wide range of different flavor profiles, Ventura suggests starting with an aged cheddar—four-years-old should do it—which is stronger than a basic cheddar but isn’t too niche. He’d then pick a Butterkase, a type of brick cheese that’s mild, buttery, nutty, and friendly to a wide variety of palates. Then he’d add a Brie or Camembert—and a blue cheese, if he’s feeling daring. Cheese curds, of course, are always a go.

Granted, the cheese board isn’t just about the cheese. Ventura recommends tossing in a Carrs Assortment Pack, as different crackers bring out different textures. “Water crackers that are very plain will complement some of the stronger cheeses, while a sweet digestive can be used to cleanse the palate or eaten with a Camembert.”

He’d also offer spice-dusted pecans, sold at the castle, to offset the fatty cheddar and curds. Finally, he recommends finishing the board with a little jar of creme fraiche to offer a different texture. “We really like to experiment, get a little risky,” he adds. “You never know when you’re going to find that delicious combination.”

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Ariel Kanter is a freelance food and lifestyle writer living in Highland Park, Illinois. You can find her bylines on Serious Eats, New York Magazine’s The Strategist, Edible Brooklyn, Refinery29, and more. If she’s not writing, cooking, or eating, she’s playing with her terrier mix, Pippin.