Rick Moonen and Elizabeth Blau discuss Sirio Maccioni’s impact on Las Vegas

Famed restaurateur Sirio Maccioni passed away Monday at the age of 88 in his hometown of Montecatini in the central Italian province of Tuscany. He was known for founding Le Cirque in New York City in 1974 and helping launch the careers of many acclaimed chefs, and also recognized as the ultimate host, a model of sophisticated hospitality.

Maccioni’s giant influence stretched across the country’s fine-dining landscape and his style and approach to service were well-suited to Las Vegas, where Le Cirque and Osteria del Circo opened at a brand-new Bellagio in 1998.

“Nobody is going to take his place. He was driven,” says Rick Moonen. “He understood the concept of looking deep into a guest’s needs or wants and knew how to deliver on a level no one else could. That’s instinct. It meant everything in the world to him to impress, and to leave an impression, to make sure you remember that moment.”

Moonen, a New Yorker now living in Las Vegas after operating the acclaimed RM Seafood and other restaurants at Mandalay Bay from 2004 to 2018, worked for Maccioni at the original Le Cirque in the early 1980s. Daniel Boulud, Terrance Brennan, Alain Sailhac, Jacques Torres, Alex Stratta and Geoffrey Zakarian are among the many other big-name chefs that spent formative years in that kitchen.

“I think I was there from ’82 to ’84. I trained Terrance Brennan to take my place as saucier in the morning and trained Geoffrey Zakarian the same,” Moonen says. “That was a pretty important position to have [because] you came in and opened up the kitchen, got all the sauces and reductions and stock started. It was an insane amount of prep that had to be done every day—making a 25-egg-yolk Hollandaise, consommé had to be made, all the specials of the day.

“Once a month, I think it was the first Monday, Sirio Maccioni would walk behind the line, being real cool about it. He’d grab some bacon off the shelf, put some salt on it and eat it, and take a hundred dollar bill and stuff it in my pocket. Once a month. It was not a cool slip of the hand, he’d just jam it into my pocket and say, ‘How are you doing?’ He had a really interesting, dynamic energy.”

Moonen recalls being surprised when he learned Maccioni would open restaurants on the Las Vegas Strip. At the time, there were few nationally prominent chefs and operators running eateries in hotels and casinos.

“Everybody looked at Las Vegas as a joke [because] it was all about feeding people at buffets and getting them back on the gambling floor. Everybody knows Wolfgang Puck was the first recognized chef in Las Vegas but Elizabeth Blau is very much recognized as the personality that brought a lot of the big-name chefs to Las Vegas. And I think Sirio was definitely more progressive. I have a feeling it was the promise of his sons being involved in the business, his need to build a legacy and his family saying, ‘We got this, pop.’”

Blau came to Las Vegas to build Bellagio’s original chef and restaurant lineup, which also included Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Prime, Julian Serrano’s Picasso, Michael Mina’s Aqua and more. But Maccioni’s classic French cuisine at Le Cirque and whimsical Italian at Circo were the foundations for the iconic resort’s restaurant roster.

“Originally Bellagio [restaurants] were meant to be all run internally. It wasn’t initially designed to be celebrity chefs,” says Blau. “Bringing Le Cirque and Circo in was really the turning point, not only for Bellagio but it really changed the face of Las Vegas.”

Le Cirque at Bellagio.

Le Cirque at Bellagio.

Blau, who went on to build the dining program at Wynn Las Vegas and open other restaurants in Las Vegas, in Canada and elsewhere through her Blau & Associates company, first met Maccioni while she was in graduate school at Cornell. She was in New York for a trip with her professor and other students and had gone to dinner when the group was invited to Le Cirque for Maccioni’s birthday.

“Sirio invited me and another student to join him for dinner. What are you going to do, tell Sirio Maccioni you already ate?” she recalls. “I met his wife Egidiana and she told me she loved to gamble, and I told her I happened to be going to Las Vegas to see my friend Gillian Wynn [daughter of Steve and Elaine Wynn], and asked if they wanted an introduction.”

Blau worked for Maccioni while she finished grad school, before Steve Wynn recruited her for Bellagio. She helped organize the family’s archives and developed an understanding of their history while Maccioni became something of a mentor.

“We live in this culture of extraordinary celebrity chefs but Sirio pretty much stands alone as the world’s most renowned restaurateur,” she says. “The pedigree of the chefs he had working for him, the way he was first with different things like tableside service, he was always ahead of the curve. He literally hosted every president, every leader of every country, celebrities, the pope. A lot of people have stories to tell but I sat for hours listening to his. He had the admiration of every chef and every restaurateur in the world and the fact that Le Cirque is still at Bellagio after 20-plus years is a true testament to what he brought to the city.”

The Maccioni family was also one of the first to land in Las Vegas on the Strip before expanding into the suburbs, opening Tré in the Boca Park center near Summerlin in 2002. When Aria opened within CityCenter in 2009, its signature Italian restaurant was Sirio, a regal dining room that expanded on the cuisine of Circo located where New York City transplant Carbone has been operating since 2015.

Maccioni is well portrayed in his 2004 memoir Sirio: The Story of My Life and Le Cirque, written with Peter J. Elliot, and in the memorable 2007 documentary Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven, which explores the family dynamic and the transition of the restaurants’ business to sons Mauro, Marco and Mario.