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August 1, 2014

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Sami Ladeki talks L.V. and San Diego’s Trip Advisor top rankings as pizza destinations

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Sammy's Restaurant, Bar & Grill

Sun-dried tomato pizza at Sammy’s Restaurant, Bar & Grill.

Sammy's Woodfired Pizza

Japanese-style chicken meatballs at Sammy's Woodfired Pizza. Launch slideshow »
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Sami Ladeki.

Voting in the new Trip Advisor pizza survey last week ruffled feathers from the Windy City to Brooklyn when San Diego placed first and Las Vegas ranked second. Chefs from New York to Chicago were outraged that they were ranked behind our two Western favorites.

“I’m not at all surprised,” said Ken Henderson, owner of Pizza Lounge in Tivoli Village, with its original in Manhattan Beach, Calif. “We’ve been overlooked for too long, and now the truth is out.

“You’ll find just as many people in Las Vegas raving about our pizza parlors as you will on the East Coast. The voters have spoken: We have the best of the west — and in the USA!”

Sami Ladeki is regarded as the king of pizza in Nevada and California and is nearing 25th anniversary celebrations in California. His first pizza joint was in my summer home of La Jolla, which opened its doors in 1989, the first restaurant concept in San Diego to introduce wood-fired ovens to guests.

For the past 15 years, Sami, born in Lebanon, has ruled as royalty since he opened his first Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza in Las Vegas. Barely speaking English, he was recruited from a German hotel restaurant school to the Royal Sonesta hotel in New Orleans, then into the U.S. military six months later during the Vietnam War.

With his culinary experience, he was in the mess halls feeding 2,000 a day. He served as a food and beverage manager at Caesars Palace, with stints at London’s Westbury Hotel and Princess hotel in Bermuda.

Now to demonstrate why Trip Advisor critics voted his two cities best in the pizza parade, he’s opening the largest 24/7 restaurant in his group in Henderson and another at McCarran International Airport this month.

His new 8,000-square-foot restaurant, bar and grill in Green Valley features all of his pizzas, but also desserts and a tapas-style menu. There’s a “living room” taking up nearly half of the venue with a lounge feel featuring Japanese chicken meatballs, mini duck tacos, cheeses and flatbreads.

Sami continues to explore new-dining concepts, developing new menus and redesigning his restaurants. “Food is like fashion,” he says. “You shouldn’t sit still or you might find yourself out of style.”

He credits his success with pizza to a simple secret: “This is not a hobby or a whim or an impulse. This is a profession and an industry requiring study and preparation; otherwise, the attempt will fail after a few months or years. I constantly monitor the work.

“When a company becomes big, we have to follow a system that applies to everyone. What frightens me is failure because I have seen a number of good restaurants that collapsed after their standards began to deteriorate.”

I had seven questions for the restaurateur who can now, with the Trip Advisor rankings, be officially dubbed “The Prince of Pizza” with his 20 locations in Nevada and California — and who even franchised to Tokyo investors who became fans of his pizzas.

The brand Sammy’s is known for bringing your exceptional Southern California pizza to the Las Vegas Valley. When did you open your first location, and what is it that Las Vegas locals love so much about your pizza?

The first Las Vegas location opened in 1997 at Sahara. When we first opened Sammy’s here, it was a very unique concept — healthy, fresh and a wide variety of menu items. We continue to offer a place for locals to dine in their neighborhoods, and we’ve become a Las Vegas favorite from the beginning.

Sammy's Woodfired Pizza Challenge

The Morning Zoo, Erich Bergen and Jeff Leibow at Sammy's Woodfired Pizza. Launch slideshow »

Your new restaurant is called Sammy’s Restaurant, Bar & Grill instead of Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza. What is different about the new restaurant, and why the new name?

Over the years, our menu has evolved beyond just our famous woodfired pizza. We’ve developed a menu offering global healthy cuisine with a focus on fresh and organic ingredients. Our new location on Green Valley Parkway is going to offer an expanded menu with a wide selection of tapas, entrees including breakfast and a full bar with an exciting cocktail menu. Our traditional locations are an average of 3,500 square feet. With this restaurant being 8,000 square feet, it is a much larger operation, and we wanted the name to represent this.

Why did you choose Green Valley as the location of your new restaurant?

We are located just off I-215 on Green Valley Parkway and Pebble. I chose this location because it has this great neighborhood feel nestled between the business parks and communities. It will be a great place for everyone, where friends can relax and dine at happy hour after work and families can go out to breakfast together. Plus, the convenience of being directly off I-215 makes it easier for people from other communities to get to easily.

Tell me about the “living room” at your new restaurant. What is your vision for that area?

I currently live in Las Vegas, and I frequently dine out. I’m always looking for a place to dine where I can relax, that is trendy yet informal and that is off the Strip. Because I haven’t been able to find this, I wanted to design a 3,500-square-foot living room to be bright, open and inviting all year round and for it to become the local hangout. The living room is designed to welcome you in for any meal at any time of day, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking our lush landscaping.

What has changed in the Las Vegas dining scene since you opened your first restaurant here in 1997?

Over the years, I’ve seen an avalanche of amazing restaurants come to Las Vegas. I travel the world and have dined at some of the finest restaurants; however, nothing compares to Las Vegas. The restaurants here are really the best in the world. There is everything from top-notch Asian restaurants to world-class steakhouses. No city can compare to it, and I’m very proud to be part of it and grateful for the success that I’ve had in this town.

Even though your company is based in San Diego, you live in Las Vegas? What about this city made you want to move back here?

In 1976, I was the food and beverage manager for Caesars Palace, and ever since I’ve always been drawn to this town. I live in town, and it is one of my favorite places in the world. Las Vegas is exciting, upbeat and always reinventing itself. Plus, there is always a new restaurant to visit or try. Once you have lived here, it is hard to live anywhere else — Las Vegas just calls to you. I have had so much success here, with five restaurants and more on the way, including our sixth location at McCarran Airport opening in August. I only see great things in the future in this town.

You know I am a summer regular at your restaurant Roppongi when I am in La Jolla. Will there be any of my favorite items from Roppongi at the new Sammy’s in Green Valley?

We are pleased to be offering some of Roppongi’s notable favorites on this menu, including our steak of the rocks, papadam, wok’d sesame shishito peppers, herb-marinated lamb chops, seafood cioppino and a few more.

Sami lives and works by his motto: “Eat well. Feel good.” And it’s paid off handsomely. Congratulations on being #1.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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