The Company Was Elvis … The Food Was Italian

Elvis : Live at Del Webb’s Sahara Tahoe

The World’s Best Kept Secret

One of my stories of meeting Elvis was in the book “World’s Best Kept Secret.” This story is about the Italian foods that he liked to eat when on the road.

In the summer of 1973, Elvis Presley and his family of performers, were playing a return engagement at Del Web’s Sahara Tahoe Resort Hotel at Lake Tahoe, NV. That same summer, I was working across the street as a bingo runner at Harrah’s Casino.

The Del Web Corporation supplied Elvis and his entourage, with the entire top floor of rooms at the Sahara, plus a two-story luxurious lakefront home for the duration of their stay.

elvis worlds best kept secret
Elvis on the cover of the book World’s Best Kept Secret

Included with the house was a backyard dock fully equipped with sailboat, speedboat and rowboat, all moored for the pleasure of Elvis and his Memphis Mafia.

Having met Elvis the previous year, as well as several of his back up musicians, and body guards, it didn’t take me long to resume my old acquaintances. An outwardly friendly and gregarious bunch of guys, Elvis’ boys always remembered the casino workers and generously included us in their elite circle of Tahoe friends. From the first day I reunited with the Elvis entourage, his boys kept telling me about a big dinner party they were all looking forward to at the end of the gig. I thought they were talking about a fancy restaurant in one of the clubs, so I didn’t really pay much attention to this “special dinner.”

Later, I would discover it was indeed a very special dinner. Comedian Jackie Kahane was Elvis’ opening act during that tour, Kahane often held court after hours in one of the smaller Sahara Tahoe lounges, entertaining a regular group of us with his hilarious off stage /show-biz stories. He was a creative story teller and honed his skills in the wee hours of the morning keeping our table of friends and workers laughing all night long.

Sitting at the table with me was Joe Guercio, Elvis’s musical conductor, and Glen Hardin, his musical arranger and piano man. One of our favorite subjects was food, it seemed some of us shared the same love for our Italian family foods. One food in particular was mustard greens; Joe Guercio and I were big fans of this pungent Italian American favorite. Our mouths were watering for some old fashioned home cooking.

I had been lucky enough to see most all of Elvis performances while he was at the lake, thanks to his boys. Most times I stood at the back of the room by the exit doors and never, ever, tired of his performances.

The two week engagement went by fast and Elvis’ final performance had arrived. I was sad to see this spectacular time in my life come to an end, but Elvis and his group had a date to open at the Sahara in Las Vegas the coming week. The entourage was about to hit the road again.

On the final night of an engagement, it’s a show business tradition to give a big party for the musicians and stage crew. I had gone to several of Elvis’ parties the previous year at his Sahara Hotel star suite, but this 1973 closing party was much different … like no other I’d ever been to before.

This party was held in grandiose fashion in a two-story luxury home located right at the edge of the lake. Chauffeured limousines shuttled the cast, crew, and party members back and forth all night long from the house to the Hotel Sahara, about 15 miles to and fro.

Sitting with me in one of the long, black, limos was Jackie Kahane. J.D. Sumner, Kathy Westmorland, some young female fans and most of The Sweet Inspirations vocal group. When we arrived at the grand party house, lights were blazing, people were buzzing and laughing. The double balconies of the house were crowded with people, all around the house performers were mingling on the steps and in the garden. Parked in the driveway was Elvis’ sleek, black Mercedes. It was one of Elvis’ personal cars that he had one of the boys drive up to the lake.

Entering one of the back doors to the house we found ourselves in a noisy and bustling kitchen. The counters were filled with the unmistakable aroma of Italian home cooking. I was beyond surprised when I saw an old fashioned, traditional, Italian feast being prepared, Italian sausages and green bell peppers sizzling in roasting pans in hot ovens. Baking dishes filled with lasagna smothered in tomato sauce, Romano and mozzarella cheeses. Colanders were filled with freshly washed rugala, tomatoes, lettuce, and green onions waiting to be tossed with olive oil and wine vinegar dressing.

These enticing flavors had our mouths watering, but if the food was a surprise, the person cooking it was even more so. It was Joe Esposito himself, Elvis’s road manager, best friend and best man at his wedding. He was cooking up a storm, like a chef in a fast food restaurant.

When we walked in, he was busy chopping fresh garlic for the loaves of garlic bread about to go into the broiler. I asked Joe why he didn’t have it all catered from the club. He told me that this was his gift to the cast and crew … some real home cooking. Most of the crew had been away from home for months and during that time had been eating only restaurant food. The kitchen in the house was big, but not big enough to hold all that food, and before we knew it, Joe had us all hauling food out to the living room.

I was startled when I walked into the luxurious living room and saw plywood planks and saw horses used as makeshift tables. Exceptionally long tables were needed for so many dinner guests. Taking a quick glance around the room I spotted Elvis. He was in a corner standing by an elaborate pool table that was brightly lighted by an overhanging tiffany lamp. The table, and the men playing the game, could be seen very clearly, Elvis looked striking under the overhead lamp. He wore a baby blue snug fitting outfit, but he didn’t mingle with the rest of us that night. For much of the evening Elvis spent his time playing pool, and snacking on anti-pasta.

While a group of young ladies watched his every move in sheer delight. Sometimes a loud howl would come from his corner of the room usually when one of the players pulled off a great shot. I got the feeling that Elvis liked to win, and his boys were more than eager to grant him that pleasure. I also heard talk that the boss didn’t like to be overshadowed by his boys in anything, including football, women or karate.

When the food was all on the tables and everyone finally gathered around to eat, there was a lot of confusion, I remember looking up to see if Elvis was going to join us, but he had disappeared down the hall into one of the many rooms of the house. Next, I saw one of the boys making up a big tray of food and taking it to a back bedroom, where I suppose Elvis was watching television and waiting for his tray of Italian cuisine.

But right then, no one was thinking about the king of Rock & Roll. Our appetites had taken over our desires and all we could think about was that huge table in front of us, and those enticing platters of spicy lasagna, sausages and bell peppers, garlic bread and Italian dressing and lots of Brolio wine. And, oh, yes! Joe had managed to find a store that sold “mustard greens” in nearby Reno NV.

For the next hour, or so, there was no Elvis Presley, no shows to perform, no bingo to be run … just our ravenous appetites waiting to be satisfied with all that tasty, wonderful, home cooked Italian food.

Cookie Curci is an experienced freelance writer, born and raised in San Jose, California. Cookie writes syndicated columns across the country, and wrote a “Remember When” column for The Willow Glen Resident for 15 years. Her work has been published in 15 Chicken Soup for The Soul books, and in the series of “Mother’s Miracle” books ( Morrow books).

She has a short story in the new book “ELVIS”, Live at the Sahara Tahoe; has been published in San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury news, Woman’s World, Primo magazine, Mature Living, and many websites.

Cookie is currently writing for several Italian American newspapers and magazines, they include LaVoce Las Vegas, Amici Journal, L’italo Americano, Life in Italy and Italiansrus.