By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Dec 15, 2009 at 1:49 PM

LAS VEGAS -- I've been fortunate to take three trips to Las Vegas in the last three years. The first was strictly for work: fanning out to report on the many Milwaukee connections in Sin City. Last December's trip was strictly for fun: a long weekend to send our friend, Paul, into fatherhood with a bang.

The most recent trip, a few weeks ago, was a combination of the two: to escape the Wisconsin winter but also to investigate whether Las Vegas had turned it around; a year ago, the city looked frighteningly sleepy, a harbinger of a nationwide recession.

I can now report with much happiness that Vegas is ready for a comeback, baby -- tan, rested and ready to lead America into recovery. What happens in Vegas might stay in Vegas (unless you are Tiger Woods), but you know it's a good sign when tourists are spending money again, bringing leisure back into their lives. And with the opening of the brand new $8.5 billion CityCenter development, Vegas has doubled down on its future. The rest of the economy can't be far behind.

Full disclosure: Since our first trip to Las Vegas in 2007, the PR staff at MGM Grand -- which owns several of the major casinos on the strip -- has kindly offered to host parts of our junket. This year, through the most unlikely of Wisconsin connections, Planet Hollywood made a similar gesture. As always, I let them know that even the most gracious of "comps" didn't guarantee positive -- if any, editorial coverage. And once again, honestly, it turns out they didn't have anything to worry about.

We stayed at the brand new 57-story Vdara hotel, part of MGM's new CityCenter, which is literally the largest privately-funded construction project in the history of the United States. Still a work in progress, Vdara opened just a week before we arrived, and we were likely the first people to stay in our room, where the plastic wrapping was still shrouding the sofa bed. I've stayed at a few elegant hotels in my time, and Vdara was right up there in terms luxury.

A non-smoking, non-gambling property, Vdara, like all of CityCenter, is set back from the Vegas strip. Modern and cooly understated, it really doesn't feel like Las Vegas. And that's what it's marketed as -- an oasis of calm in the middle of the madness. The hotel does plenty to set up this vibe, with dark wood tones, a pleasant scent pumped into the lobby (about the only similarity to a casino property), and soothing, new-age music that makes it seem like something cool is about to happen. You don't know exactly what, but you know you're going to like it when it does.

In a way, that something-cool-is-about-to-happen vibe at Vdara captures the mood of Vegas these days. After a drop in visitors led to plummeting hotel rates and sinking revenue at the mega casinos, the town is ready to show off its newest architectural, shopping, lodging and gaming wonder: CityCenter. In addition to Vdara, the development includes the world-class Aria resort and casino which had not yet opened during my visit. There's also the top-notch luxury hotel Mandarin Oriental, as well as condos and shopping. It's certainly a marvel of urban planning put together by a dream team of the top living architects on the planet. Early signs are that a stay at CityCenter would be a sure bet.

As for the property where we stayed, Vdara is connected to neighboring Bellagio by a skywalk. But you still have to hike a long way to see any casino action. Part hotel and part condo, that's exactly how it was intended. Every room is at least a suite with a kitchen, perfect for our situation. I took the giant king-sized bed, while Paul took the pull-out couch. We each had our own flat-screen TV to keep us from the pesky task of having to speak to each other too much.

In my several trips to Las Vegas, I've stayed everywhere from Imperial Palace to Luxor -- and many places in between. A few kinks aside (the front desk was still learning its computer systems), Vdara was the best by far. With Vegas insanity jumping out at you at every turn, it's incredibly refreshing to step away from the action and into the eco-friendly tranquility (CityCenter is a LEED-certified development) that this stunning property affords. I would certainly visit again, and would highly recommend Vdara to anyone who is looking for a non-traditional, but still super high-end Vegas vacation.

Day One: Settling In and Stepping Out

Air travel always takes a lot out of me, and I've learned the hard way that it's a rookie mistake to push it too hard, too fast in Las Vegas. That's why I was in no rush to leave Vdara, instead opting for a nice hot shower and some quiet relaxation before heading out on the town.

Best intentions aside, after about two hours of resting comfortably, Paul and I knew we couldn't wait much longer to try our hands at a little "gaming," and we wandered over to Bellagio. With each pull of the slots, Paul seemed to win at least something, while I slowly watched my bills slip away. Eventually, I pried Paul away from his lucky "DaVinci Diamonds" machine and took the tram over to Monte Carlo for dinner at Brand.

The Light Group operates Brand, and I was already familiar with the fantastic work it does in Vegas. It also owns STACK in the Mirage, another steakhouse we hit last year and one I still daydream of to this day. Working against Brand is its location just off the casino floor. Even though it feels separate, you can still see slots and wandering gamblers not that far in the distance. What works for Brand is its excellent food, of which we consumed plenty.

Like everywhere else we visited, service is paramount in Las Vegas right now. Jobs are hard to come by, even in Vegas, so only the best of the best find work in the service industry. Even though we didn't ask for it, Brand rolled out the proverbial red carpet for us, loading us up with appetizers like "Hot Rocks" (thinly-sliced tenderloin cooked on hot river rocks at the table), calamari and mini lobster rolls. For our entree, I opted for the 8-ounce filet, while Paul went for the "Flintstone" steak, a 20-ounce, bone-in "Tomahawk" rib eye.

If Brand was just one small step below its counterpart at the Mirage, it was only because of its integrated casino location. I found the menu to be extremely approachable and flavorful, priced reasonably enough for casual dinners, but just fancy enough for those looking for a great dinner.

Full -- but not too full -- we walked across the casino to its theater for the 9 p.m. Frank Caliendo show. I've always considered myself a casual fan of Caliendo's comedy, but was really just eager to support our hometown guy. As far as I'm concerned, his show didn't disappoint.

Paul would disagree with me, as he found Caliendo's routine a little dated and bland, but I enjoyed this generation's best celebrity impersonator thoroughly. While his George Bush and John Madden impressions are becoming increasingly less relevant as the years pass, Caliendo is just so good at what he does. Every impression he does is completely spot-on and his ability to deftly jump between characters mid-sentence is nothing short of amazing. He had a nice interplay with his live band and pulled off an error-free, fast-paced and refreshingly clean hour-long set. Caliendo also threw in lots of Brett Favre jokes -- material I hadn't heard before and appreciated because I knew the Waukesha native had a connection to his subject.

Now pushing midnight, Paul and I cabbed it over to the Hard Rock Casino, a favorite hangout of ours from years past. It's funny; in any other city, we'd probably stay away from the Hard Rock, but in Vegas, it really is one of the cooler casinos. We wandered around the center bar for a while -- people watching is excellent here -- before heading off-strip to one more stop for the night.

We pulled into the Artisan Lounge, 1501 W. Sahara Ave., at about 1:30 a.m. At this point, we'd each been up for about 24 hours, so our mojo was quickly running out. But before this trip, we identified several places we wanted to visit, and the Artisan was one of them. A classic old Art Deco hotel and local hang out, the Artisan felt nothing like the glitzy Vegas we'd experienced. Patrons and staff are friendly, and the fancy artwork lends the joint a hipster vibe that feels more real than the Disney-fied watering holes on The Strip. We pondered this over a pair of $12 beers, then cabbed it back to Vdara for some much-needed sleep.

An Off-Strip Saturday and Some Sensational Sushi

Maybe it's just 15 months of new parenthood, but apparently I don't need as much sleep as I used to, because after just five hours, both Paul and I popped awake, ready to tackle another grueling day of extreme relaxation and fine cuisine. Though I argued against it, Paul decided to rent a car for the weekend, and I now reluctantly agree that he made the right decision. A taxi from the airport to the strip costs about $20. Considering you must spend another $20 to cab it back to the airport at the end of the trip, you really only need one or two more excuses to drive somewhere to break even on the rental. We found that excuse over the world's largest breakfast at Hash House A Go Go, 6800 W. Sahara Ave.

I'm not exaggerating: This is the place they featured on "Man V. Food," and it was for good reason. I ordered one of the special "hashes" off the menu, a gigantic mixture of Chorizo, peppers and crispy potatoes. On top of that, they lumped two eggs, a biscuit and a slice of fruit for good measure. I didn't weigh it, but it's entirely possible they served me five pounds of food, and while I normally pride myself in my ability to clean any plate, I barely made it two-thirds of the way through. Paul went with the roasted pork tenderloin hash, a skillet full of meat the size of a human head. Delicious and reasonably-priced, no person needs to eat this much food. I remained stuffed and woozy in a food coma until our 7 p.m. dinner. It's the kind of only-in-America overindulgence that makes you want to thumb your nose at Bin Laden as you take a swig of Maalox and dig in for more.

Next, we drove to the Palace Station Casino -- just because we could. Part of us just wanted to play a little blackjack in the casino where O.J. Simpson tried his hand as a two-armed bandit. Part of us just wanted to scope out the scene at another off-strip gambling hall. It actually turned out to be a lot of fun, especially for Paul, who hit another $300 jackpot on slots while I managed to break even in an hour of $5 blackjack. We wrapped up our driving tour with an unprofitable trip (for me, anyway) downtown to Freemont Street -- a jaunt worth making, I still assert, but not one for investing too much time into.

Down another small pile of money, we spent the rest of the afternoon digesting our humongous breakfasts before putting on some respectable clothes and grabbing a drink at Bar Vdara, the hotel's cocktail lounge.

Remember, for all the free drinks at the casinos, you also must be gambling at all times, so dropping $40 on two cocktails at the classy but tranquil Vdara bar didn't feel all that out of order, especially given the help from MGM on dinners and accommodations. Better still, though, was the time spent talking to the bartenders, who filled us with insight on what it's like to actually live in Las Vegas -- and then gave us more suggestions for spots off the beaten path.

Armed with this knowledge, we walked over to Bellagio's Yellowtail, another Light Group restaurant and home to the best sushi I've ever had. Paul, who's eaten sushi in Tokyo, concurred that this was the best Japanese food he'd tasted outside of Japan, and this dinner was a meal that I'll likely never forget.

Among my several personal shortcomings is that I've never been especially adventurous when it comes to food, but Saturday night, I felt ready for a new experience. We dined on Ahi Tuna pizza, raw Kobe beef Tataki, an absolutely transcendent grilled Walu (one bite and you'll know why it's also called butter fish!) and a handful of sushi rolls and sashimi. The dinner, paired with a bottle of hot saki and cold Asahi beer was magnificently delicious, its quality almost difficult to put into words. Overlooking the Bellagio fountains, Yellowtail made for a truly remarkable -- and very pricey dinner. The service was flawless without feeling overwhelming -- but our gratuity, alone, totaled more than what I typically spend for a dinner for two in Milwaukee. I honestly can't imagine ever topping this sushi dinner any time or any place.

After a long and indulgent dinner, we left Yellowtail in a bit of a trance with the kind of endorphin rush that emerges from such a world-class meal, so I must've looked stunned when I practically ran into my co-worker, John, in the Bellagio lobby. I knew he, too, was in Vegas for the weekend, and while we planned to meet up at some point, I was shocked to randomly bump into him in a hotel where neither of us were staying. I snapped out it of long enough to invite him to join us back at our Sin City HQ, the Hard Rock, where I actually won a few bucks at slots.

Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams

As anyone who's visited Las Vegas knows, by the third day, you start to feel a little bleary. It's not just the indulgent food and drink, the bright lights or the omnipresent casino noises, it's also the dry, desert climate. There's no such thing as "bar time," and everywhere stays open around the clock. Parched, lips a little cracked, we got a later start on Sunday morning, but we began to recharge by the time we made it across the street to Planet Hollywood.

Last year, I experienced PH for the first time -- like Hard Rock, Planet Hollywood Casino is nothing like the cheesy chain restaurant you might be familiar with. This property has an upscale, adult, almost sexy vibe to it; not kitschy like Excalibur or Circus Circus. Little did I realize that this year, I'd be entertained by a native Wisconsinite and casino executive, La Crosse's Donna Marcou-Stafford, who heard about my upcoming trip from my radio appearance on "The Dave and Carole Morning Show" a few days earlier on WKLH. Marcou-Stafford is the vice president of leisure sales, and like MGM, she welcomed us with open arms.

So, continuing my gluttonous eating exercise only partially mitigated by miles of walking through casinos, we had brunch at Planet Hollywood's buffet, which served me far more food than I needed (yes, it's everyone's fault but my own). But the meal also held me over until dinner, and walking through the PH sports book, we ran into Summerfest's John Boler and Bob Babsich. It's true, you'll find Milwaukeeans everywhere you travel. Especially in Las Vegas.

A little low on energy, we wandered the strip, checking out a few old favorites like Bill's Gambling Hall and Caesar's Palace. Eventually, we made our way back to CityCenter to peruse the brand new shopping mall, Crystals.

Crystals is just one of the reasons I assert that Las Vegas is back in business. This brand-new mall is home to only the most upscale of shops, like Cartier, Tiffany, Versace, Bulgari and a slew of luxury brands I haven't even heard of. I knew enough to not even waste these stores' time by window shopping, but I did grab a coffee at Crystals' small cafe. "Where's the Old Navy?" I jokingly asked a barista, as she, too, seemed taken aback by the wealthiest of the travelers shopping -- and buying -- in Las Vegas' version of Rodeo Drive. Lots of people with accents strolling around clued us in that maybe the weak dollar is still attracting lots of tourists from Europe.

Before we changed for our final night on the town, we explored a little more of CityCenter, which, to me, became a metaphor for this trip. The $11 billion development was stalled the last time I visited Las Vegas, the recession tightening its grip on even the lucrative casino industry. Last December, the Strip felt eerily empty, as hotels practically gave away their rooms to bargain-hunting travelers.

Now, CityCenter is near completion, with one architectural wonder rising after another, opening its doors and employing upwards of 12,000 workers. At risk of being too simplistic, there is a palpable feeling of rebirth and rejuvenation in Vegas -- and it feels great.

Buoyed by our casino-free lap around CityCenter, we got ready for our grand finale. We walked back to Planet Hollywood to meet our Wisconsin host at Strip House, PH's take on a steakhouse. Visually, I enjoyed this restaurant's aesthetic the most, one that I can best describe as "upscale bordello," but not in a trashy or silly way. Even though it became my second great steak in three days, I again ordered the filet, along with a Caesar salad. Paul ordered the New York Strip, and we shared sides of goose fat potatoes and sauteed green beans with garlic. I concluded with a heavenly banana custard tart, while Paul showed a bit of restraint for a change and skipped dessert.

Eating two steak dinners in one weekend allows one the opportunity to compare and contrast. While both were delicious, I found Brand's offering to be more approachable, zesty and buttery, and Strip House's a bit more spicy and sublime but equally excellent. You'll pay a bit more at Strip House -- the average price per person is $55 -- but you're removed from the casino in this self-enclosed retro yet modern atmosphere. It's a lock that either restaurant will be superb, and if you love steak like I do, try them both.

Before dinner, Stafford introduced us to Vice President of Resort Operations Joe Eustice -- himself a native of southwestern Wisconsin, who returned to give us a behind-the-scenes look at PH's entry in the sushi game, Koi, and made us promise to try it next year (I promise we will, Joe). He then took us next door to the theater for "Peep Show," a musical revue that can only be classified as tasteful burlesque.

It's one of those Vegas mainstays you must see sooner or later, and with reality star and Hugh Hefner's ex-girlfriend Holly Madison headlining "Peep Show," now seemed as good of a time as ever. Now, I'm not the kind of guy who delights in musical theater, elaborate sets and over-the-top costume changes. However, throw in a few dozen beautiful women in various stage of undress, and you've got my attention. Calling "Peep Show," a simple striptease act isn't giving it justice. Rather, these are professional and frequently topless dancers who sell out shows to men and women, alike. It's about as legitimate as an R-rated show like this can get, and in the end, a prototypical Vegas show that must be experienced to be believed.

After the show, Eustice asked us if we'd like to attend Madison's screening party for her new E! reality show. "Um, yes," Paul and I said in unison, as if there was any other acceptable answer.

We spent the next hour sipping cocktails on the Playmate's tab, sitting far enough away from the cast but still on the good side of the red velvet rope. While we felt fairly ridiculous, I was at least heartened that I wasn't the most inappropriate party crasher in the room. Robin Leach, the tubby and washed-up paparazzi "journalist," was there, too, bugging the crew and making them pose for photos. At this point, I had just enough gumption to strike up a conversation with his much, much younger girlfriend, deliberately lingering around her long enough to annoy Leach into putting down his champagne flute and suggesting that the pair exit the party (see my above photo, which still has me giggling).

Finally, we knew we'd been there long enough, and now, past midnight, we thanked Eustice again for an incredible evening and left him to continue his late-night duties. It's hard to pick a favorite part of the trip, but if you ask Paul, he'll tell you that talking with Joe about his fascinating job was one of the real highlights. "I want to be that guy when I grow up," Paul quipped.

We ambled back to Vdara, hoping to catch a few hours of sleep before a long trip back home on Monday morning, and Paul left to try his luck one more time at Bellagio (if I had the kind of streak Paul did, I might've, too). Thankfully, we had an uneventful departure after a great breakfast at Vdara's Silk Road, having lost a few hundred bucks to the casinos and having gained a few pounds from their delicious food.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Wisconsin can be seen all over Las Vegas, but that's not specifically why I visited this time. From Badgers sweatshirts everywhere on the Strip to relocated cheeseheads spearheading the hospitality industry, it's easy to see how well represented we are in Sin City.

But for me, I went to Vegas to escape a little bit: this town is such an easy, potentially over-the-top, long weekend trip that is equally -- but differently -- fun whether you visit with your spouse or your old friends from college. Even with some much-appreciated assistance, it's not a cheap trip, unless you play your cards right, figuratively and literally.

Get yourself out there this winter and I know you'll agree, people are having fun, spending money and flocking back to Las Vegas in droves. And that's a great sign for a country that's looking for its luck to change.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.