Regis Philbin, who passed away Friday, July 24, at the age of 88, was no stranger to Central Jersey.
No stranger to the former Club Bene in Sayreville, to be exact.
“People would always ask, 'What does he do?' ” said Tom Beninato of Club Bene on Saturday, July 25. “My simple answer was, 'He sells out.' ”
Philbin first played Club Bene at the height of his “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee” popularity in the '80s.
“Every time I had him, he sold out,” Beninato said. “This was the first place he did his nightclub show. I didn't care what he did, he sold out.”
An added enticement for Philbin was Mary Beninato's meatballs. Mary was Tom's mom.
“I always booked him on a Saturday because Saturday was the day my mom made meatballs,” Beninato said. “So he'd come in on a Saturday, do his rehearsal and then have a meatball sandwich.”
Philbin, a Notre Dame graduate, was also a fan of Notre Dame football, which factored into the Saturday performances.
“There was one day Notre Dame was playing, he said I got to watch the game,” Beninato said. “He came over my house, went down into my basement. I have a big screen TV down there and he sat down there all day and watched the football game.”
It was through Philbin that Club Bene was mentioned on ABC's “Monday Night Football.” Kathie Lee Gifford, Philbin's “Live!” co-host, put the word in with her husband, “Monday Night Football” announcer Frank Gifford.
“He called it ‘Cafe Bene,’ ” Beninato said.
Philbin's record-breaking 15,000 hours on the air included a very high-profile run as the host of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
Yet, he never forgot his Club Bene days. He spoke fondly of his run at the club, which hosted everyone from Al Martino to the Ramones, in his 1995 autobiography “I’m Only One Man.”
Philbin played there about a half dozen times. He also recalled the shows for the Morgan, New Jersey blog. The club, which operated from the 1950s to 2004, was located in the Morgan section of Sayreville.
“Sure I remember the Club Bene. It was a great place to break in an act, improve it and most important, learn it,” Philbin said. “The crowd was always friendly if not a little on the rowdy side. Let’s just say they were enthusiastic. I thought it was a great place to learn another side of show business … being up there onstage entertaining the people in person and not through the camera. I loved the Beninato family. All of them were great characters and Mrs. Beninato was a terrific cook. After rehearsing with the band she always served a great dinner. Great meatballs and pasta just like my Italian mother made. It was always exciting to appear at Club Bene. I loved that place.”
Philbin, a U.S. Navy veteran who was born in the Bronx, passed away of natural causes, reported USA Today. He is survived by his wife Joy and three daughters.
“You couldn't ask for a nicer guy,” Beninato said. “A perfect gentleman.”
Chris Jordan, a Jersey Shore native, covers entertainment and features for the USA Today Network New Jersey. Contact him at @chrisfhjordan; firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Regis Philbin: Remembering his Club Bene days, and Mrs. Bene's meatballs, in Sayreville