Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013 | 2 a.m.
It was a Thursday night and the place was packed: the Italian American Social Club on Sahara Avenue was saying goodbye to one of its own.
Singer Mark Giovi was leaving town, and the dress-for-success crowd sipped martinis and watched him work the room with the verve of a Rat Pack member.
Just like the old days.
Over 53 years, the venerable social club and restaurant a few miles east of the Strip has seen its good times and bad: Sinatra was once a member here, and Dino (Martin) and Perry (Como) often joined him onstage. But there were also times marked by poor management and the constant battle against the perception (mostly by the federal government) that the place was a perilous mob hangout.
So, were there ever “made” guys in the house? President Angelo Cassaro smiles. You bet, he says. Was the joint ever, uh, dangerous?
Never. (Well, almost.)
The social club is a survivor, an institution that remembers its past but knows it must change for the future: Sure, there’s still a bocce ball club, and inside the white brick building guarded by several pseudo-Roman statues, the pasta Bolognese is still authentic. The decor is sophisticated — not a red-and-white plastic table top or Tower of Pisa fresco in sight.
Even so, the place is looking for new blood.
“This club is really vintage Vegas,” Cassaro said. “The food is still fabulous and it’s always been a fun place to be. But we’re looking for a new generation to come here and take us into the future.”
Of course, the once all-male bastion isn’t disowning its colorful past. Members of the Chicago, New York, New Jersey and Buffalo crime families once frequented the club, bringing in the federal undercover guys.
“It was funny to see the feds at the bar in their Hawaiian shirts, nursing iced teas, looking at the mirror into the room next door where the made guys ate family-style,” Cassaro said. “They just assumed bad things happened here.”
Good things, too. The social club was founded in 1961. Within four years, members had built their palatial 12,000-square-foot headquarters, thanks to lavish fundraisers for which Frank Sinatra brought in national talent and glitz.
Whenever Italian-American entertainers came to town, the social club would enlist them to appear there for charity fundraisers — performers like Vic Damone and Jimmy Durante. The club so reveled in Sinatra’s participation that officials made Ol’ Blue Eyes a lifetime member in 1963.
“Sinatra brought a lot of prestige to the club just by being there,” said longtime club member Frank Citro. “This was the place to go. Now the old headliners are gone. But the club wants that ambiance back.”
Though membership hit a nadir a few years ago when it dropped below 100, from a Rat-Pack-era high of 400, new investors have spruced up the place, including the old Sorrento Room, a dining area whose prices and authentic old-style menu remain a Las Vegas throwback. Membership is now over 260.
As Giovi, the departing singer, embraced well-wishers that night, the club had the electricity of old.
“You packed this place,” someone told Giovi.
“Yeah,” he said. “Me and Sinatra.”
But what about the old mob connection? Some think that kind of talk was overblown.
“There was never any trouble — and if there was, they’d straighten it out right there. If you got a rowdy-dowdy, they’d 86 ’em,” recalled former Clark County Sheriff Ralph Lamb, who declared war against the mob presence in Las Vegas in the 1960s and ’70s.
“The club was a meeting spot for old-timers. It was very seldom that I even got a report there were any mob guys there. Maybe a loan shark or two — not one of the tough guys.”
Former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, a onetime lawyer for numerous mob characters, said he ran into some of them at the club: “I had a lot of not-guilty legitimate clients. And, sure, I saw a few of them there.”
Michael Green, a historian at the College of Southern Nevada, noted, “Yes, there were connected guys who hung out there, but it was mostly a social club for the average Italian-American citizen.”
Still, an illicit reputation lingered, Cassaro said. “By the 1980s, things happened that got the feds’ attention,” he said. “This was the same time when (reputed mob boss) Lefty Rosenthal’s car got blown up just a quarter-mile down the street.”
In those years, one club board member was a known federal snitch. Cassaro said nobody knew whether the government put him in his club position or whether the snitch approached the feds with information.
“I’m not sure how it got started, but the made guys didn’t like it. Everybody knew,” Cassaro said. “At times, there were threats and chairs thrown at meetings. But the people this guy was trying to watch, they came and ate and enjoyed the music. There weren’t any operations going on inside the club. There was nothing to report.”
In 1988, Cassaro for the first time became president of a club so badly managed it was near insolvency.
“We didn’t even have a cash register,” he recalled. “The patron sat in a booth and the waiters brought the tickets and he made change out of his pocket. The employees were paid in cash; there was no workman’s compensation. If a cook cut his finger off, he would have owned the place.”
Worse, the club hadn’t paid its taxes. Cassaro told them the place had to be run like a business to survive.
Yet potential danger lurked. Cassaro wasn’t sure about the club’s made guys. “I was concerned about making a bunch of changes. If the wise guys didn’t like it, you don’t know. At the time I didn’t know. But they never interfered.”
In 1990, women became members and the club was opened to the public.
But the federal undercover guys didn’t go away. Cassaro got tips his phones were being tapped. One night he recognized a government agent at the bar: Cassaro, owner of a plumbing company, had done work at the guy’s house.
“He didn’t know I was the club president,” he recalled. “He kept giving my these eyes like, ‘Don’t blow my cover.’ I didn’t. I’m sure the made guys knew he was watching them anyway.”