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Storied Sahara casino renamed, reborn; first major Vegas Strip resort opened since downturn

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LAS VEGAS, Nev. - The Moroccan-themed Sahara casino that once hosted Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the Beatles seemed a lost cause in 2011, when its owners declared the 59-year-old property unprofitable and shut it down with little more than a vague promise to return.

SBE Group CEO Sam Nazarian had purchased the Las Vegas Strip resort in 2007 with dreams of restoring its former glory, but the recession stalled the plans, driving the owners to close two of the three hotel towers and hawk rooms for $1 per night over Twitter.

"There were some dark days," said Sam Bakhshandehpour, president of Los Angeles-based SBE, which owns a variety of hotels, nightclubs and restaurants. "But we held on."

The decision to cling to the shabby casino looks nothing short of prescient as the reincarnated Sahara opens as the vibrant SLS Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal said early Saturday that the resort opened just after midnight following a lavish reception for 3,600 guests and a fireworks display.

As the casino reinvents itself, it's ushering in a renaissance at the tired north end of the Las Vegas Strip, which for years had been home to empty lots, low-budget motels and half-built mega-resorts with their frozen construction cranes looming nearby.

Since construction began on the SLS, which stands for "Style, Luxury, Service," a Malaysian conglomerate announced plans to fold the half-finished Echelon casino into an Asian-themed Resorts World Las Vegas. Australian casino giant Crown Resorts has purchased the land where the New Frontier casino once stood. An open-air concert venue set to house the massive Rock in Rio USA music festival next spring is in the works, and Walgreens has started building a store across the street.

"Global gaming companies with deep pockets are investing in the north end of the Strip, and that bodes well for the north end of the Strip and the SLS," said Michael Paladino, an analyst with Fitch Ratings.

SLS Las Vegas' debut marks the first major resort opening since The Cosmopolitan's in late 2010, and it is likely the last one to open for another four years or so.

SBE spent $415 million gutting the casino, giving it a playful makeover at the hand of French designer Philippe Starck and stuffing it with all the trendy restaurants the company has been cultivating in Southern California.

Restaurant-centric SLS comes online at precisely the right time — Las Vegas visitors have awakened from their recession slumber hungry for fine food and nightlife and less inclined to gamble. The SLS is poised to capture their hearts and non-gambling dollars with celebrity chef Jose Andres' Bazaar Meat, gourmet burger joint Umami and The Griddle Cafe, a Los Angeles staple whose larger-than-life pancakes draw seemingly endless lines for Saturday brunch.

The casino floor is back, but it's smaller than before and spills over into the restaurants and bars.

Rooms, which start at around $100 a night next weekend, are airy and modern, with white sofas under the windows, mirrors on the walls and over the bed, and whimsical details like a monkey print on the ironing board cover.

"We're approachable luxury," SLS Las Vegas President Rob Oseland said. The average SBE customer is 38, about 10 years younger than the average Las Vegas visitor, Oseland said.

Sahara marquees once touted shows by Judy Garland, Don Rickles and Sonny and Cher, but now they're trumpeting Australian it-girl Iggy Azalea's opening Friday night show. Gone is the Sahara's small roller coaster and six-pound burrito-eating challenge; that gave way to a beer garden, several nightclubs and a pool club.

The typical Las Vegas Strip casino overhaul includes a dramatic implosion of the old building, but SBE made do with the original skeleton of the Sahara. It cost about one-tenth of what a ground-up rebuild would cost, and it allowed SBE to play off the rich past of the Sahara while transforming it beyond recognition.

Using the slogan "Be Legendary," ads for the SLS juxtapose images of youthful guests from the 1950s and their fun-loving counterparts of today.

"There's something special about bringing something back to life," Bakhshandehpour said.

The energy is palpable among Las Vegas residents, who watched as hundreds of people lost their jobs in the Sahara closure and everything from the slot-machine chairs to the camel lamps were sold off in a fire sale three years ago. SLS owners say they received 117,000 applications for their 3,400 positions.

"It was absolutely humbling," Bakhshandehpour said.

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