MANGIA, VEGAS!: Lorraine Hunt-Bono wants to bring everyone here – then feed them
True, she’s a political power player.
True, she’s a relentless warrior for tourism who would hustle every single human being on the planet through our neon portals if she could.
True, she’s roamed Las Vegas stages as a sweet-voiced songbird, charming audiences in the Entertainment Capital of the World.
True, she oversees – aided by her 101-year-old mother and several generations of family — a celebrity-magnet eatery and people-watching hub so intertwined with this city’s history that Vegas without it would be like the Rat Pack sans Sinatra.
Also true? None of that supersedes her most essential personal: classic Italian mama.
“Can’t we get you something to eat?” says Lorraine Hunt-Bono, 79, who has been known to suggest rich (sample that sauce!), Italy-for-the-palate entrees to her diners from off the mangia!-licious menu at the Bootlegger Bistro. Just ask her other half.
“She tells me what I’m in the mood for,” quips her husband, Dennis Bono. Fear not. She won’t dictate your culinary urge. She’ll simply satisfy it.
Our ex-lieutenant governor (1999-2007) and Clark County Commissioner (1995-99), small business advocate and proud restaurateur is perched at a table in a banquet room beyond the main dining area at the Bistro on Las Vegas Boulevard South – which is much more than just the family business.
“This is our home turf, our world,” says Hunt-Bono about the sprawling food/live music mecca (anchoring the Piazza Shopping Center) that began life in 1972 at Tropicana and Eastern avenues and joined the Strip in 2001. Flanking her on this day are her son, Bootlegger COO/musician/music producer Ronnie Mancuso (taking a break from toiling in his on-site office and adjacent recording studio); and her spouse, the singer/longtime local radio host who’s unburdened by meal choices when the missus is hovering.
“We’re an entertainment complex, with politics in the background. We live our whole lives here as a family, four generations,” she notes. That lineage stretches from Hunt-Bono’s mom, matriarch Maria Perry – who even after passing a century of living still drops in on the kitchen staff for taste tests, protective of her recipe legacy – down to Perry’s great-grandchildren, Mancuso’s son, Roman, and daughter, Zia.
Predating the Bootlegger, the Perry clan’s hospitality history in Vegas rewinds all the way back to the 1940s, when Maria made her bones in the kitchen of Fiesta Villa Ristorante on the Strip. Mega-wattage clientele came through, including Clark Gable, Bugsy Siegel, Jane Russell, Clara Bow and Howard Hughes, who tipped her generously.
Old Vegas remains forever young within these walls, teeming with framed photos that jam-pack any and every place you can cast your gaze — of celebrities (from Jimmy Durante to Paul Anka to Andrew Dice Clay to the Rat Pack legends), family members (note the relative who hilariously posed with the ill-fitting glass eye) and vintage Vegas people and places. Collectively, it’s enough visual razzmatazz to make Instagram look like a quaint high school yearbook.
“It’s authentic, it’s the history of the town, the pictures are real, there are no fake paintings put up,” Mancuso says, placing the Bistro in elite historical company. “There are so few places in this country, like the Rainbow Room (in New York) and the Whiskey A Go Go (in West Hollywood) that have this kind of history and permanence.”
Adds Dennis Bono: “There are places where they don’t want people to remember what it was like 25 years ago because they want to create a new image. But this place wants you to remember, whether it’s food-wise, music-wise or the social environment. In this place, we still are the glory days.”
Locals and tourists alike cram in. Strip performers show up to hang out or even climb onto the bandstand for an impromptu set – oooh, there’s Clint Holmes, and Kristen Chenoweth and Tony Orlando and Sheena Easton, and Pink just asked if she could belt one out! — in a room just a cocktail olive’s throw from the bar.
All of it unfolds beneath the watchful eye of Hunt-Bono – a performer herself in her youth under the name Lauri Perry (catch the photos of her vocalizing at the Tropicana in 1962 and opening the Landmark Hotel in ’69!) – who was responsible for one of the biggest tourist initiatives this state has ever attempted. And if you’re grateful for the economic gifts that tourism bestows on our town, she should be near the top of your thank-you-note list.
“When I was elected lieutenant governor and Kenny Guinn was the governor, he asked me, ‘What are some of your goals?’ I said, ‘We have to have an office in China,’” recalls the determined civil servant. Also on her civic resume: She chaired the Nevada Commission on Tourism and was the first female board chairwoman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA, which operates the Las Vegas News Bureau and Las Vegas Newswire).
“Everybody is looking at me, like ‘Lorraine! You’re a little too ambitious.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ This was 1998. I was with the LVCVA when we opened offices in London and Germany, and we also went to Hong Kong,” she says of the territory that was a British colony until it was returned to China’s control in 1997.
“I’m watching these young entrepreneurial people speaking three languages and working 60 to 80 hours a week. I said, ‘My instinct tells me that Hong Kong isn’t going to become more like China, but China is going to become more like Hong Kong.’ Nevada had to have our foot in the door.’”
Flash forward to 2004, when Hunt-Bono orchestrated a trade mission that made Nevada the first state to be granted a tourism license in China, with promotional billboards cropping up around Beijing, opening the visitor floodgates from a once-unreachable tourism market. LVCVA statistics reveal that in 2003, just below 22,000 tourists visited us from China, but in 2016, more than 233,000 had likely snapped themselves grinning by the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” sign in a near-continuous year-to-year climb.
“(Chinese officials) said, ‘We can’t talk about gambling.’ I said, ‘I grew up (in Las Vegas) and we don’t have to talk about gambling. We can talk swimming pools, golf courses, food, shows.’ And as a state official, I talked about the pristine West. They all wanted to go to Virginia City (where TV’s “Bonanza” was set). We had to go to China and get started for the future and expand because I knew the global economy was going to be important. People were worried about (competition from) Atlantic City, but we can get the whole world – right to the moon!”
Consider her a modern day, one-woman Lewis & Clark, who blazed a trail into a new tourism frontier. As Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison noted when presenting her with the Nevada Commission on Tourism Legacy Award in 2015: “She has a keen eye for opportunity and a concise perception of what sets our state apart from the others, and those are two qualities that help drive our tourism industry to great success.”
Vegas passion was aroused early in the lady from Niagara Falls, N.Y., whose family relocated here in 1943, making the burgeoning desert resort town her playground. “My father and mother loved it so much here,” Hunt-Bono says about Maria and her late husband, Al Perry. “People used to say, ‘Al, you should work for the chamber of commerce.’ He’d say, ‘Las Vegas is the street of dreams, you can be all you can be here.’ This town restored their health with the sunshine and the dry heat. They were great ambassadors for the town and that rubbed off on me.”
Call her a keeper of Old Vegas at the Bootlegger Bistro. Call her a civic powerhouse in service to Today’s Vegas. Call her a performer, businesswoman, politician and advocate. She’s all that.
Oh, and an Italian mama. … You sure you don’t want to mangia a little something?