By Steve Kieva
Photos by the Las Vegas News Bureau
The iconic SAHARA Las Vegas recently celebrated its 70th anniversary. Founded in 1952, the resort has seen a storied history, including hosting the Beatles during their first U.S. tour and serving as the setting for the 1960 Rat Pack film, Ocean’s 11.
The event included a presentation by Dr. Michael Green of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, about SAHARA’s origins on Oct. 7, 1952, and vibrant, seven-decade-long history, as well as remarks by SAHARA Las Vegas General Manager Paul Hobson.
The celebration concluded with a 70th anniversary cake presentation and champagne toast inside SAHARA’s AZILO Ultra Lounge before guests attended the Epicurean Charitable Foundation’s (ECF) MENUS fundraiser at SAHARA’s AZILO Ultra Pool. At that event, Alexis Meruelo, chief vision and purpose officer for Meruelo Gaming, SAHARA’s parent company, made a surprise $15,000 donation to the ECF, which provides scholarships for students to attend the University of Nevada Las Vegas’ hospitality school.
SAHARA Las Vegas’ anniversary celebration also marked the official debut of “70 Years of Extraordinary Images: SAHARA’s History in Photographs,” an exhibition spanning the resort’s history and noteworthy milestones from 1952 to the present day.
Over its 70-year history, the world-renowned resort and casino has also hosted prominent entertainers, celebrities and world leaders, including The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, Eleanor Roosevelt, Johnny Carson, Judy Garland, Liberace, Clint Eastwood, Cher, Nancy Wilson, Bon Jovi and more. The property’s interior and exterior were also featured in 1960’s Ocean’s 11.
“It is so satisfying to celebrate 70 iconic years of SAHARA Las Vegas history with the property in such excellent form. SAHARA has been completely reimagined to incorporate extraordinarily elegant design elements coupled with best-in-class features to create a boutique property on the Strip,” Paul Hobson, general manager of SAHARA Las Vegas told us. “I am honored to be a part of this new chapter for SAHARA while connecting with what makes SAHARA an iconic staple.”
“When the property opened 70 years ago, guests would have seen Moroccan desert motifs incorporated into a streamlined, mid-century architectural form,” Hobson explained. “What guests see today pays homage to that original inspiration, while we have updated that theme for a vibrant, fun-seeking 21st century audience. You can see this in photographs and artifacts on display throughout the property.”
Since developer Milton Prell opened the property on Oct. 7, 1952, SAHARA has undergone several expansions and transformations. The property’s first expansion to add additional hotel rooms took place in 1954 and, in the years following, SAHARA has continued to add new facets to the hotel. Two new hotel towers were built in 1960 and 1963, and a third tower was added in 1988.
In 2011, the property underwent a redevelopment as SLS Las Vegas before reopening in 2014. In 2017, Alex Meruelo and his company, Meruelo Gaming, announced the purchase of the SLS Las Vegas and its rebranding to SAHARA Las Vegas.
Since its grand reopening in 2019, SAHARA Las Vegas has been completely reimagined thanks to a $200 million renovation that incorporates extraordinarily elegant design elements conceived by Nancy Paolino of Las Vegas-based Innovativo Design. The all-new SAHARA includes several eateries, including Noodle Den, Chickie’s & Pete’s and the newly opened Balla Italian Soul by Chef Shawn McClain, as well as the AZILO Ultra Pool and Ultra Lounge, a purpose-built theater for the popular MAGIC MIKE LIVE production, and a spectacular porte-cochere fronting the Las Vegas Strip. The all-new SAHARA Las Vegas offers style, sophistication and a playful sense of possibility embodying the spirit of Las Vegas—all while bringing the iconic Las Vegas experience to a new generation.
“We are so grateful to celebrate 70 iconic years of SAHARA Las Vegas history,” said Hobson. “Newly renovated and completely reimagined for the future, we look forward to what the next 70 years will bring.”
SAHARA Las Vegas is an all-encompassing resort and casino with 1,613 guest rooms and suites in three distinctive towers—including the AAA Four Diamond Alexandria Tower, more than 95,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, AZILO Ultra Pool, two rooftop pools, and a collection of acclaimed restaurants, bars and entertainment venues. The inviting casino occupies 60,000 square feet and features approximately 600 of the latest slot and video poker machines, 50 classic table games, Infinity – a premium gaming lounge, The Poker Room at SAHARA Las Vegas, and a sportsbook operated by global gaming leader, William Hill. An impressive selection of culinary and cocktail offerings includes Bazaar Meat by José Andrés, named “Best Restaurant in Nevada” by Business Insider; famed Philadelphia sports bar Chickie’s & Pete’s; The Noodle Den from renowned Chef Guoming “Sam” Xin; CASBAR Lounge; Uno Más; Prendi; The Tangier; Zeffer’s; and, the newly opened James Beard Award–winning Chef Shawn McClain’s Balla. SAHARA Las Vegas is also proud to serve as home to “MAGIC MIKE LIVE” Las Vegas presented by Channing Tatum. SAHARA Las Vegas players can also enjoy the benefits of an Infinity Rewards membership, a joint loyalty program between SAHARA and its sister property Grand Sierra Resort and Casino Reno, which gives players the opportunity to earn and redeem rewards across both destinations.
I had an opportunity to ask General Manager Paul Hobson several questions about Sahara Las Vegas.
1 – What similarities are there with the “new” Sahara and the “old” SAHARA?
Both the new and old SAHARA epitomize the timeless soul of Las Vegas. From its official opening on Oct. 7, 1952, to today, the world-renowned resort and casino has served as Las Vegas’ most iconic property, welcoming dazzling entertainers, global superstars and other notable guests from around the world. Paying homage to the classic design of and inspiration for the 1952 SAHARA, the new property references sexy Moroccan elements and is a modern desert sanctuary in the heart of Las Vegas.
Unlike other Las Vegas resorts that infamously demolished their history, SAHARA Las Vegas embraces its past, bringing the iconic experience to a new generation.
2- What three features does the “new” SAHARA offer that the “old” Sahara didn’t?
Thanks to a $200 million renovation, the all-new SAHARA Las Vegas offers style, sophistication and a playful sense of possibility embodying the spirit of Las Vegas, including the new AZILO Ultra Pool and Ultra Lounge. The all-new SAHARA also includes a fully custom theater for the production show “MAGIC MIKE LIVE,” and several new eateries such as Balla Italian Soul by chef Shawn McClain.
3- If someone asked you to name the top three features that the Sahara offers, what would they be?
In short, SAHARA offers an uncommonly intimate scale by Las Vegas standards, world-class fine dining and several distinctive entertainment venues. Guests who stay at SAHARA enjoy an elegant and contemporary ambience exemplifying a type of modern nostalgia unlike anything else on the Strip. Our boutique-style hotel not only distinguishes us from the mammoth megaresorts down the boulevard, but also allows us to offer a brand of personalized service much larger resorts cannot deliver. All of our dining is best in class across all of our restaurants, from casual to gourmet. Lastly, SAHARA features some of the best entertainment on the Las Vegas Strip. From a rotating roster of world-renowned DJs at AZILO Ultra Pool to the illustrious production of MAGIC MIKE LIVE, SAHARA offers guests one-of-a-kind memorable, entertaining experiences.
4- Are there any casino or room upgrades planned?
We recently completed the casino renovation as well as the unveiling of our all-new spectacular porte-cochere fronting the Las Vegas Strip. As part of the property’s $200 million renovation, we will be adding high-end suites to our top floors, incorporating many of the extraordinarily elegant design elements conceived by Nancy Paolino of Las Vegas-based Innovativo Design.
5- Why do you think the SAHARA made it to its 70-year anniversary?
Throughout its seven decades of history, SAHARA has continually embraced the spirit of Las Vegas with its world-renowned casino, five-star dining options, distinctive entertainment, noteworthy bars and luxury accommodations and amenities. SAHARA helped establish Las Vegas as a major resort city upon its opening and continues to do so today, welcoming thousands of guests to the Las Vegas Strip each week. Most recently, in 2018, thanks to the vision and leadership of owner Alex Meruelo, the former SLS Las Vegas was purchased and rebranded into SAHARA Las Vegas, catapulting the property into a rebirth just in time for its historic 70th milestone celebration.
6- Giving away my age, I remember the House of Lords steakhouse as one of the best restaurants in Las Vegas. What is your featured restaurant now and what are your favorite menu items?
SAHARA Las Vegas features eight incredible restaurants and eateries, including the recently opened Balla Italian Soul by James Beard Award–winning chef Shawn McClain, named “Best New On-Strip Restaurant” by Eater Las Vegas. Our most notable featured restaurant for many years has been Bazaar Meat by José Andrés, a groundbreaking culinary experience and celebration of everything carnivorous. This restaurant is memorable and made to impress, where guests can enjoy nuanced, playful cuisine and cocktails for which Bazaar Meat by José Andrés has become known on both coasts, in a strikingly seductive setting. My favorite menu items are the Caviar Cone (caviar and crème fraiche in small waffle cone), Butter Potato Puree (butter, butter, more butter, some potatoes), and the Wagyu Ribeye (the most amazing steak I have ever tasted).
The Sahara Las Vegas Timeline
1952 Developer Milton Prell opens the property on Oct. 7; SAHARA welcomes Marilyn Monroe, Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen for the filming of The Edgar Bergen Show.
1953 Sugar Ray Robinson visits SAHARA with his two young children; Marlene Dietrich performs on stage.
1954 SAHARA undergoes its first expansion, adding additional hotel rooms to the property.
1954 Louis Prima and wife Keely Smith open new act at SAHARA.
1955 Grace Kelly visits SAHARA; Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Wilding visit SAHARA.
1956 Doris Day visits SAHARA.
1958 Eleanor Roosevelt visits Las Vegas and SAHARA to speak on behalf of the United Nations.
1960 SAHARA adds new hotel tower to property; filming begins for Ocean’s 11 at SAHARA starring Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra; King of Rock ’n’ Roll Elvis Presley arrives at SAHARA; Paul Anka visits SAHARA; George Burns and Ann-Margret perform at SAHARA.
1961 Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme open at SAHARA.
1962 San Francisco Avenue renamed as Sahara Avenue.
1962 Donn Beach opens a Don the Beachcomber tiki bar at SAHARA.
1963 SAHARA adds second brand-new hotel tower to the property.
1964: The Beatles stay at SAHARA during their visit to Las Vegas to perform at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
1965 Judy Garland performs on stage at SAHARA; Don Rickles performs on stage at SAHARA.
Liberace performs on stage at SAHARA; Liza Minnelli opens at SAHARA.
1967 Nancy Wilson opens at SAHARA; Johnny Carson performs at SAHARA.
1970 Flip Wilson and Kim Weston perform at SAHARA.
1972 Cher visits SAHARA.
1974 Miss World auditions take place at SAHARA.
1975 Barbi Benton, Hugh Hefner and Marty Robbins visit SAHARA.
1977 George Carlin performs on stage at SAHARA.
1978 World’s first blackjack tournament hosted at SAHARA.
1983 George Burns, Tom Smothers, Carol Channing and Robert Goulet visit SAHARA; Sandy and Buddy Hackett visit SAHARA.
1985 Leroy Neiman, Phyllis Diller and Tommy Smothers visit SAHARA.
1988 SAHARA adds a third hotel tower.
1997 Construction of the SAHARA dome begins.
2006 SAHARA sign is moved to The Neon Museum in Downtown Las Vegas.
2011 The property undergoes renovations to become SLS Las Vegas.
2014 SLS Las Vegas opens to the public.
2017 Alex Meruelo and his company, Meruelo Gaming, announce the purchase of SLS Las Vegas.
2019 The property rebrands as SAHARA Las Vegas.
2022 SAHARA Las Vegas celebrates its 70th anniversary and completes a $200 million renovation incorporating extraordinarily elegant design elements conceived by Nancy Paolino of Las Vegas-based Innovativo Design. The all-new SAHARA includes several eateries, including Noodle Den and Chickie’s & Pete’s, as well as the AZILO Ultra Pool and Ultra Lounge, a purpose-built theater for the popular MAGIC MIKE LIVE production, a spectacular porte-cochere fronting the Las Vegas Strip, and James Beard Award–winning Chef Shawn McClain’s Balla Italian Soul.