Jay Sarno



He was so far ahead of his time in Las Vegas.  I mean he just knew everything, everything about gamblers and what made people work.  And every day was a learning day for Jay Sarno, every day.

–Evel Knievel, legendary daredevil and lifelong Sarno friend

Jay Sarno was very clever.  It was a little hard when I was young to see through his bombastic and carefree personality–he didn’t look like an artist.  He wasn’t quiet and sensitive.  He was a party guy.  He was bigger than life.  You don’t associate that with Renzo Piano and Santiago Calatrava and Frank Lloyd Wright and Walt Disney. You wouldn’t think that this guy could sit down and dream up what he did until you started talking to him. If anybody changed Las Vegas it was Jay Sarno.

–Steve Wynn, Chairman and CEO, Wynn Resorts

His themed hotels took us into the modern era and the creation of a massive amount of investment that gave Las Vegas the infrastructure to surpass places like Orlando or anywhere else as a destination resort.

–Elaine Wynn, Director, Wynn Resorts

Jay always had an imagination. But that Grandissimo, how he described it to me was just—it was like he saw into the future.

–Allen “Ace” Greenberg, Wall Street legend and lifelong Sarno friend

I think Las Vegas owes Jay Sarno a lot.  The themed resorts.  A very colorful character, lived life, as many people will tell you, to the absolute fullest, didn’t miss many things.

–Larry Ruvo, Senior Managing Director, Southern Wine and Spirits of Nevada

He was basically the founder of what Las Vegas is today.  I don’t care what anybody says.  His artistic and creative genius was noteworthy.  He’s the one, of course, who designed Caesars Palace.  He was a man before his time.  He also did Circus way before his time and the Grandissimo even further before his time.  But he was bigger than life.

–Oscar Goodman, former mayor, Las Vegas

The Jay Sarno Story

Jay Sarno built two path-breaking Las Vegas casinos, Caesars Palace (1966) and Circus Circus (1968), and planned but did not build a third, the Grandissimo, which would have started the mega-resort era a decade before Steve Wynn built The Mirage. As mobsters and accountants battled for the soul of the last American frontier town, Las Vegas had endless possibilities—if you didn’t mind high stakes and stiff odds. Sarno invented the modern Las Vegas casino, but he was part of a dying breed—a back-pocket entrepreneur who’d parlayed a jones for action and a few Teamster loans into a life as a Vegas casino owner.

For all of his accomplishments, his empire didn’t last. Sarno sold out of Caesars Palace shortly after it opened—partially to get away from the bookies and gangsters who’d taken over the casino—and he was forced to relinquish control of Circus Circus when the federal government indicted him on charges of offering the largest bribe in IRS history—a bribe he freely admitted paying, on the advice of his attorney, Oscar Goodman. Though he ultimately walked out of court a free man, he never got Circus back.  And though he guessed the formula that would open up Las Vegas to millions in the 1990s with the design of the Grandissimo, but he wasn’t able to secure the financing for the casino, and when he died in 1984, it remained only a frustrating dream.

Sarno’s casinos–and his ideas about how to build casinos–created the template for Las Vegas today. Before him, Las Vegas meant dealers in string ties and bland, functional architecture. He taught the city how to dress up its hotels in fantasy, putting toga dresses on cocktail waitresses and making sure that even the stationery carried through with the theme. He saw Las Vegas as a place where ordinary people could leave their ordinary lives and have extraordinary adventures. And that remains the template for Las Vegas today.

Grandissimo is the story of how Jay Sarno won and lost his casino empire, inventing modern Las Vegas along the way. Jay lived a life of extremes that’s been glossed over in most histories of Las Vegas. In Grandissimo, you’ll learn Jay’s fascinating story, and also plenty of things you never knew about Las Vegas, including:

- the true story about how Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters Union first started funding Sarno's hotels

-how Steve Wynn ended up answering the telephone in Hoffa’s suite on the second day Caesars Palace was open

- how Sarno, represented by Oscar Goodman, beat a seemingly-airtight federal case against him when he was accused of offering the largest bribe in IRS history to an undercover agent

- how Sarno’s unbuilt Grandissimo became the template for the 1990s “mega-resort” era in Las Vegas

The book is now available for purchase in print, electronic, and audiobook formats.