Las Vegas is becoming renown for its many marquee chefs and to-die-for cuisine in top drawer restaurants. A recent move by Mesquite Gaming promises to bring those same top quality eateries to our town thanks to Tom Jannarone, recently named Vice President of Food and Beverage for the company.
His background is as varied as the menu items he oversees for the restaurants at the CasaBlanca and Virgin River Casinos, coming to Mesquite after spending six years at the South Pointe Hotel Casino in Las Vegas.
His experience with food dates back to his childhood, growing up with a father who was a U.S. Marine and a farmer. His mother owned and operated a bridal shop in northern New Jersey. "I started cooking when I was five years old," Jannarone explained. "We Italians do that."
"And everything was made from scratch using food my father grew. Cookies, bread, everything. We are full-blooded Sicilian and that's how we did it," he remarked.
(See additional story and recipe from Jannarone - Mesquite’s Own – Tom Jannarone - Mesquito Bites by Susan Lang.)
Jannarone began his professional career just after he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America at 20 years old. Soon after he moved to Italy and worked in the food industry there for almost four years. With the homeland experience under his belt, he came back to the States and opened a $6 million dollar Italian restaurant in New York City.
He came out to Las Vegas to interview for a job with Steve Wynn, cooking a twelve course lunch for fourteen people. Not your regular interview by any stretch. "Steve Wynn came to me after the lunch and said, 'so you want to come to Las Vegas.' I told him no. He asked me why I was there if I didn't want to live in Vegas. I explained that I was after the job and didn't care where it was located."
"I had just spent a day in Wynn's kitchen and didn't see any windows overlooking the ocean," Jannarone quipped. "Wherever the job is, is where I go."
He ended up working for Wynn, first at the Golden Nugget and then the Mirage for 12 and a half years.
Visitors and locals are lucky that Jannarone wanted the job in Mesquite.
"Someone asked me why Mesquite," he remarked. "I said, why not."
"These are beautiful properties. I'm just going to massage them a little bit," Jannarone said as he began explaining his plans for the restaurants and eateries at the two casinos he's now responsible for.
"I just try to make whatever positive change I can, through food."
His first change began with Katherine's fine dining restaurant at the CasaBlanca casino. "I just cleaned up the menu a little bit. Most people worry that someone new is going to ruin their favorite restaurant. Of course I'm not going to do that."
And a quick check of his new menu for a favorite restaurant proves him right.
"Some dishes aren't going to change in the slightest way. In my opinion, they're perfection already. A couple dishes just need to be modernized a little bit. Any changes will be for the better."
He explained that "All our beef served at Katherine's is all USDA Prime. It's very expensive. There are very few restaurants in America that can say that. And the others are at least double the price of our menu items."
His number one bestseller in the restaurant is the eight ounce Filet Mignon. "In the first six months of the year, we sold 3,896 of them. We sell on average 20 a day, every day."
Jannarone added that CasaBlanca's Buffet is adding a 'Southwest Saturday' theme to its evening line-up that includes a free margarita. "Along with that, we're keeping all of our regular American food."
The Buffet will change on Sundays, opening from 7:00 am to Noon and on Saturday mornings. "We're going to call it 'Mimosa Mornings.' Everyone will receive a free Mimosa drink with their breakfast buffet. And, we're lowering the price to $6.99."
He also plans to change the décor in the Buffet area, adding new wallpaper and paint, new Formica table tops, "and just bring it up to par."
He also has some changes planned for the Buffet at the Virgin River but "not many. It's a great buffet. It's the only one open seven days a week."
He wants to rearrange the Virgin River buffet dining room and add some more seating. "We'll move the serving areas to the back and open up more dining area."
He also intends to change the coffee shop menus at both properties and "mirror the two."
"I'm probably going to change the name of the Purple Fez (at the CasaBlanca) to the 'Casa Café.' And, I'll probably change the name of the Chuckwagon restaurant to the 'River Café.' I normally don't like to change the names of restaurants. But I don't think there's going to be any harm in this case. It'll give them a nice new look and approach."
As the top administrator for all the food preparation activities, he often doesn't get to spend as much time in the kitchen as he'd like. "Starting today though, I'm going to be in the kitchen in the afternoons actually cooking some of the dishes. That way I get a better feel for the dishes. I like to be hands on and show the others in the kitchen how I'd like it done. That's my work in progress."
"I don't have a favorite dish," Jannarone remarked. "It's whatever I'm in the mood for."
And, in case you've ever wondered why Chefs always wear a double-breasted cooking smock, "It helps protect the body from the heat of the stoves."