Sunday, July 13, 2014 | 9:25 p.m.
Editor’s Note: As Robin Leach begins to enjoy his traditional summer vacation under the Tuscan sun in Italy — plus, the Northern Italian Lake District this year — many of our Strip personalities have again stepped forward in his absence to pen their own words of wisdom. We continue today with award-winning restaurateur Sami Ladeki, who has venues all over the valley, at our McCarran Airport and in other states.
In “Casino,” Robert De Niro says: “Listen to me very carefully. There are three ways of doing things around here: The right way, the wrong way and the way that I do it. You understand?” To me, that exemplifies working in Las Vegas in the late ’70s.
I moved to Las Vegas in 1977 when I was recruited by Caesars Palace to work as food and beverage manager. I was tasked with the job of making each restaurant profitable, which wasn’t easy considering that at the time, 50 percent of all meals were complimentary.
I immediately saw an opportunity to save the company about $700,000 each year by switching meat and spirits suppliers, which was a lot of money at that time. I changed vendors and thought that my employer would be pleased with my work, but, about a week later, he called me into his office.
The meat supplier had called him to complain about losing the contract, and my boss told me that letting him go would mean losing the $1 million the meat vendor lost in gaming wagers each year.
So I rehired the meat vendor. A few days later, we had a similar conversation about the spirits vendor. That was my first lesson in how to do business in Las Vegas.
At the time, Las Vegas had become a world-famous destination. It didn’t matter where I went, if I told people I lived in Las Vegas, they treated me like a celebrity. Strangers would actually ask if they could take their picture with me just because I lived here! Dinner was an elegant experience with waiters in tuxedos and traditional French service.
It was a glamorous, magical time for the city. Las Vegas had a population of about 125,000 people, yet we had some of the largest hotels in the world: the Las Vegas Hilton, which had been the largest in the world when it opened several years earlier as The International with more than 1,500 rooms, and Caesars Palace, which had more than 1,000 rooms.
I left Las Vegas to pursue opportunities in Bermuda and Houston, where I owned a discotheque and restaurant, but I longed to return to the West Coast. I moved to La Jolla in 1989 to open the first Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza, where I was the first to introduce the joys of pizza cooked in a wood-burning oven to the San Diego area.
People loved our pizza, and it became the backbone of Ladeki Hospitality Group. My plan at the time was to eventually introduce the concept to Las Vegas, which I did in 1996.
This year, we celebrate 25 years in business and now have 20 restaurants in Las Vegas and California, including our new Sammy’s Bar & Grill in Green Valley; Sammy’s in the D Gates at McCarran International Airport and at Los Angeles International Airport; Sammy’s Restaurant + Bar, which opened this month in Sacramento; and Roppongi, an Asian restaurant and sushi bar, in La Jolla.
My vision for Sammy’s was built upon the principle of making globally inspired dishes with locally produced ingredients. Through the years, we’ve expanded the menu to offer health-conscious tapas from around the world, including Mediterranean dishes. I’ve often said that food is like fashion: You shouldn’t sit still or you might find yourself out of style.
It’s thanks to the dedication of everyone at Sammy’s and the loyalty of our guests that I was recently honored as Restaurateur of the Year by the California Restaurant Association San Diego chapter. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer presented me with a surprise declaration of June 3, 2014, as Sami Ladeki Day. It was a tremendous honor made even more special by so many colleagues and friends who were there to share the evening with me.
Las Vegas continues to be a magical place for me. I’ve lived in four countries, America is the fifth, and it is the only place in the world where I would be able to achieve this success. God bless America, and God bless Las Vegas. I love this country, and I love this city.
I’m humbled to fill in for my friend Robin while he is on a much-needed vacation. Thank you for the honor, Robin. I look forward to seeing you soon at Sammy’s in La Jolla to toast our 25th anniversary over a glass of Veuve Clicquot!
Check out our other Sunday guest columns from platinum-blond burlesque star Sabina Kelley and “Dog Whisperer” star Cesar Millan. On Monday, it’s singer Sky Dee Miles and the Food Network superstar Buddy “Cake Boss” Valastro.
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.
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Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.