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Benvenuto!: At the Italian American Social Club, everyone is welcome

<p>Bartender Matt Fleener changes the channel for customers at the Italian American Club. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES</p>

Bartender Matt Fleener changes the channel for customers at the Italian American Club. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES

Ah, the mysteries of the private club. In my youth, the Latrobe Old Crabtree Sportsmen’s Association sat across from the Rodgers family compound, where we kids played pinball while dads and uncles watched the Steelers over 20-cent beers. In my New York City years, there was the “members only” gambling joint down the block, the Meatpacking District basement sex club, the greedhead chi-chi joint in the West Village. I never participated in any of the proffered vices but, as with any locked door, I just wanted to see what was inside …

Naturally, Las Vegas has its share of private social spots — the enigmatic Mesquite Club in Huntridge, the cuckoo clock-like German-American Social Club. But finest of all is the Italian-American Club of Southern Nevada (2333 E. Sahara Ave., 457-3866), which somehow retains its slightly secretive aura while warmly welcoming all comers.

It’s a boxy white-brick building with larger-than-life pseudo-Roman statuary guarding the parking lot. Pass through the foyer into the lounge, a stucco-walled room with a parquet floor and a bar ringed with brass-trimmed stools and a loop of pink neon tubing. The jukebox is stocked with Frank and Dean, perfect for enjoying the relaxed atmosphere and reasonably priced libations — pitchers of beer start at around $5 or, for something a little more authentic, vats of red (dry) and white (sweet) house-made sangria sit behind the bar.

Through an archway is the dining room, Renaissance repro still-lifes on the wall and straw-wrapped bottles of chianti on the tables. The menu isn’t extensive, but features tasty renditions of Italian comfort-food classics. The fettucine alfredo is smooth and creamy, the chicken marsala piled with woody mushrooms and rich sauce, while the chicken francaise is lightly butter-lemony. Afterwards, enjoy an espresso and some limoncello — Matt the bartender makes it from scratch and I’ll be damned if it isn’t delicious.

The Italian-American Club is a laid-back spot. Slip in for happy hour, watch a bit of whatever game is on, sip a little wine, maybe nibble on some of their delightfully spicy-spongy meatballs. The people are nice, friendly — sociable, in a word — and that’s how we wound up on a bocce ball team. It began with simply asking (out of mere curiosity) “Hey, are they still playing bocce ball?” They weren’t that night, but a conversation began and, the next week, we were slipping out the kitchen door, though a back gate and out to the courts in the adjacent park.

Now, I have never been much for competitive sports that involve instructions beyond “swim/run to there as fast as you can” or “get the ball through the hole” (OK, fencing had a lot of rules, but I distilled them down to “stay inside the lines and try not to permanently blind your opponent”). I don’t understand bocce rules, I just know I’m supposed to throw the big ball at the little one. It’s an odd hybrid of bowling, pool and golf, and draws dozens of folks from their 20s to their 70s, playing at levels from “12-0 and I can’t remember when they lost a game” to only winning because the other team didn’t show. (Guess which ones we were.)

Back inside, on Wednesdays, Joe Darro works his keyboards and accompanies a rotating lineup of performers, a sort of lounge-singer jam session. Men in sportcoats, fedoras and polished shoes lean against the bar waiting for their turn at the mic as a black woman with blond bangs croons “Good Morning Heartache.” She walks back to her glass of wine, answering an unheard question, “I got better things to do than be on Facebook, chile!” as a paisan in open collar and gold chain steps up for his Lionel Ritchie moment. Hipster types, you need no longer drive all the way to Los Angeles for your retro groove on — Joe Darro and his cast of dozens will satisfy any urge to watch Marty and Elaine doing Earth, Wind & Fire covers at the Dresden.

Of course, if you’d like your vintage tunes with a bit more polish and glam, there’s Throwback Thursdays, which occur on the first one of every month. A full 10-piece orchestra accompanies chanteuse Jeanne Brei, who sings like a swinging Peggy Lee and brings out jitterbugging youngsters and cha-cha-ing oldsters. Sunday, a tribute act nods to the likes of Elvis and Roy Orbison. Saturday nights, the parking lot fills with Cadillacs and Kias for karaoke. The Italian American Club is truly and thoroughly an “only in Vegas” place: food, drinks, entertainment, sport, even a Halloween costume party. And all you have to do to be a member is walk through the door.