Renovations help Harrah's Las Vegas keep up with neighbors

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Hollywood isn't the only place where a bit player can turn into a leading lady overnight. Harrah's, once a small fry on the Las Vegas scene, became a major player with its 2005 purchase of Caesars Entertainment. 

That deal, which netted Caesars Palace, Bally's, the Flamingo and Paris Las Vegas, provided what had been the missing piece for the world's largest gaming company: a major footprint on the Strip.

The transaction led to a renewed focus on the company's namesake property in town, Harrah's Las Vegas, a 2,530-room hotel at the center of the Strip, between the Venetian and the Imperial Palace, directly across Las Vegas Boulevard from Caesars Palace.

Heretofore a midmarket property with a good location but little else to distinguish it, Harrah's Las Vegas is now better poised to compete with the hotels surrounding it, with substantially upgraded rooms, contemporary dining options and a revamped lineup of shows.

Guest room makeover

A recent Travel Weekly inspection revealed the transformation that has occurred over the past year. Renovations will continue into 2007.

Harrah's new rooms are the most noticeable change at the hotel, affected via a wall-to-wall overhaul that replaced all hard and soft goods. 

"Harrah's is committed to achieving total customer satisfaction, and a high-quality room product is a key component of this ongoing initiative," said Mark Osterhaus, vice president of operations for Harrah's Las Vegas. "Whether they're staying in a standard room or a suite, our guests will enjoy modern amenities and contemporary design."

Harrah's standard, 340-square-foot room has been enhanced by the addition of hard-wood entertainment centers and armoires; granite and marble bathroom floors, showers and countertops; sitting areas; marble entryways; flat-screen televisions; and minibars. 

Soft goods reflect pleasing earth tones, but lighting in the standard rooms is inadequate in the closet/armoire area, where it's needed.

Suites now have two 42-inch plasma TVs, dark-wood furnishings and modern artwork.

Suite bathrooms sport oversize whirlpool tubs, granite showers and plasma TVs. Renovation of guest rooms is two-thirds complete at Harrah's Las Vegas.

Revamped restaurants

Both the 24-hour Cafe and Ming's Table at Harrah's have seen a complete renovation that has transformed their looks from dowdy to smartly stylish. Ming's turns out Cantonese specialties like shrimp and scallops with baby bok choy.

The previously unheralded Fresh Market Buffet has been transformed into Flavors, the Buffet. Featuring eight stations offering a variety of dishes, Flavors distinguishes itself with an extensive carvery, a wood-burning pizza oven and Brazilian barbecue.

Dessert highlights are the gelato station, the Tower of Chocolate fountain and FlavorStone, where diners select from a variety of toppings to be folded into their choice of ice cream. 

Comfortable and well-spaced booth and table seating offers guests an upgraded dining experience, as does the decor, which features pleasant lighting, tiled columns and wood accents. 

Singer Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill is a late-night hangout for country music fans, offering live acts -- including, occasionally, Keith himself -- on a stage fronted by a spacious dance floor.

It is Penazzi, however, that leads the way in Harrah's dining transformation.

Led by Gabriele Penazzi, the charming and effervescent host who presides over his eponymous, upscale Italian restaurant, the service staff excels in delivering a fine dining experience in an attractive venue. 

With his finger on every aspect of the operation, from welcoming arriving guests to ensuring that his mother's recipes are faithfully executed, Penazzi lends a much-needed entrepreneurial feel to Las Vegas' rich but often soulless restaurant scene. 

Penazzi's menu offers highlights from all regions of Italy, with standouts ranging from the traditional osso bucco to the not-so-traditional pistachio-encrusted scallops in a tarragon-champagne sauce.

Adjacent is the Oyster Bar at Penazzi, a sophisticated counter set-up offering more than just the traditional shucked oysters and steamed clams.

The full menu, which tempts pre- and post-show patrons needing a quick fix, includes entree-size salads, pastas and a variety of shellfish in diverse preparations.

Since longtime Harrah's entertainer Clint Holmes' show has closed, comedian Rita Rudner has taken up residence in the main showroom.

Rudner's droll, witty act, featuring her observations about everyday life, will run through mid-November, when she makes way for Wayne Newton's touring holiday show.

Tickets to Newton's holiday revue, at 7:30 p.m. daily from Nov. 22 to Dec. 21, are $86. "Mr. Las Vegas," his orchestra and ensemble singers will perform a compilation of classic hits and holiday songs.

Rudner and Newton will thereafter alternate for an indefinite period.

"Skintight," the property's long-running, but hardly iconic, adult revue, has thankfully closed.

Replacing it in May was "Bareback," a country-themed topless show that also featured something for the ladies: the Wild Bunch, four rugged cowboys who dance and sing.

However, the curtain fell on "Bareback," too, in late October. 

A spokesperson declined to comment on why "Bareback" closed and whether yet another adult revue is in the works.

On the block

An offer by two leveraged buyout firms for Harrah's Entertainment is being weighed by the board of directors.

That offer, recently raised to $83.50 per share, values the company at just over $15.5 billion. 

Nearly buried under this story, however, was the news of Harrah's recent acquisition of the Barbary Coast Hotel Casino, giving the company ownership of all land and properties on the east side of the Strip between Paris Las Vegas and Harrah's Las Vegas, spanning Flamingo Boulevard.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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