DID SHRIMP COCKTAIL HELP DRIVE THE MOB OUT OF LAS VEGAS IN THE 1950S?
Well, let’s just say they are … connected.
Shrimp cocktail was introduced to the Las Vegas casino scene in 1959 by Italo Ghelfi, a restaurant/bar owner from the San Francisco Bay Area and a founding partner at the Golden Gate Casino. What brought Ghelfi from the Bay Area to Las Vegas’ most historic hotel and casino—and what did this have to do with the sudden departure of a notorious illegal gambling kingpin?
This Vegas story starts with Emilio ‘Gomba’ Giorgetti who controlled illegal slot operations, liquor sales and a number of powerful politicians in the Bay Area. In 1948, Giorgetti came to Las Vegas to form a partnership with Benny Binion at the Westerner Casino on Fremont Street. When the two men knocked heads over management differences, those differences were resolved in classic Vegas style– with the flip of a coin.
Binion lost the coin toss, but as fate would have it, he later moved across the street to the Horseshoe where he became—as Robin Leach would say—“Rich and Famous”. As for Giorgetti, the victory was short-lived. U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver came to Las Vegas to hold a nationally televised hearing on organized crime in the old Federal Courthouse (now wonderfully restored as the Mob Museum).
At the time, television was new to the average American home and Sen. Kefauver’s live broadcasts of testimony by reputed mob bosses attracted more viewers than the World Series.
When Giorgetti was subpoenaed to appear before the Kefauver Committee, the negative publicity was so intense that he decided it was time to sell and get out of town. Like any smart, sophisticated mobster, he called his lawyer.
Giorgetti’s lawyer was Joseph Alioto, who later became mayor of San Francisco. Alioto called one of Italo Ghelfi’s partners to ask if he wanted to buy a casino in Las Vegas. When Ghelfi saw the casino’s books, his jaw dropped. He ran a successful bar in Oakland with the longest bar west of the Mississippi (a distinction that now belongs to the LONGBAR at the D), but he had never seen numbers like these. He was ready to come to Las Vegas.
Ghelfi and his partners bought the Westerner from Giorgetti, then sold it for a profit just two years later. Ghelfi’s next stop was One Fremont Street, where he opened the Golden Gate Casino on the main floor of what was then the Sal Sagev (Las Vegas spelled backward).
There are volumes of original Las Vegas stories at this special address, ranging from the first telephone in 1907 (the # was “1″) to the drinking and gambling antics of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. during the Rat Pack era. The Golden Gate, quite simply, is the embodiment of Las Vegas history.
In this story, Italo Ghelfi established a colorful reputation as a gaming pioneer and a beloved member of the Las Vegas community. In so doing, Ghelfi displaced a mobster and started a shrimp cocktail tradition that still thrives today. And that’s the connection!