ATLANTIC CITY - The financially troubled Trump Marina Hotel Casino here officially changed hands after the New Jersey Casino Control Commission gave its approval early this afternoon.

Houston-based Landry's Restaurants Inc.'s chairman, chief executive officer and sole owner, Tilman J. Fertitta, testified before the commission before it issued a 3-0 vote. (There are two vacancies on the commission.)

The sale was announced Feb. 14, between Landry's and Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc. for about $38 million.

"I am optimistic that the arrival in Atlantic City of the successful Landry's and Golden Nugget brands will be a giant step toward a reinvigorated Atlantic City gaming market," Linda M. Kassekert, commission chair, said today.

"The rebranding of Trump Marina to Golden Nugget will help regain the property's niche as a destination luxury casino resort," she added.

Trump Marina first opened June 19, 1985. For nearly 26 years, it was operated under the Trump brand, using several images of Donald J. Trump in the casino's interior. Last week, the large Trump moniker on the outside of the building was removed in preparation for the casino's six-month, $100 million transformation into a Golden Nugget Atlantic City Casino.

That is the projected amount for the first of three phases, Fertitta said, and workers were standing by earlier today waiting word that they could resume the transformation process.

The purchase marks the return of the Golden Nugget brand to the Shore resort. The Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort was formerly a Golden Nugget from 1980-1987, before being renamed.

"We think the facility that we're going to put in is going to be extremely competitive," Fertitta said last week during an interview at his Houston headquarters. "Hopefully, we bring in new business, and we don't have to steal market share.

"But we're going to do whatever it takes."

In all of Fertitta's 250 restaurants and shops nationally, and at his two other casinos - Golden Nugget Las Vegas and the Golden Nugget in Laughlin, Nev. - Landry's employees operate everything. There are no outside vendors. All of his GMs have been groomed in-house - which he says will be the case with Golden Nugget Atlantic City.

Fertitta told the commission that he will retain most of the current casino's staff, but said that "there are some people that will no longer be at the property."

Fertitta said he remains bullish on Atlantic City despite its troubles in recent years resulting from new competition from Pennsylvania and New York casinos.

He told the commission today that "we're all going to get weekend business, but it's critical that we bring convention business Monday through Thursday to Atlantic City."

In an earlier interview, he made note of the low regard, in some circles, of Atlantic City gaming.

"What I'm disappointed in is how down everybody else is on Atlantic City - the lenders, the world, the whole financial market, and the analysts," he said. "We understand it's been negative for a long time. But it's still a $3.2 billion market, and there's only 11 properties."

But the billionaire deal-maker, who has become known in the restaurant industry as a turnaround specialist with a knack for turning underperforming properties around, will have a challenge.

The lack of capital investment in Trump Marina over two decades has caused the casino to lose market share and bleed revenue. Some critics contend that the property resembled more a run-down hospital than a casino with its decrepit facade next to Harrah's Resort and the market leading Borgata.

Earlier this month, figures from the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement showed that Trump Marina grossed $38.3 million in revenue in April, down 7.6 percent from a year ago. Slots revenue was down 1.9 percent, while revenue from table games was down 24.9 percent.

Year-to-date, gaming revenue was down 3.2 percent, at $147.9 million, from $152.9 million from January to April 2010.

After taking over the Golden Nugget Las Vegas in 2005, Fertitta embarked on a $300 million renovation of that casino.

With Golden Nugget Atlantic City, he said, he will introduce new restaurants - brands owned by Landry's, such as Chart House, which will debut Thursday - bars, lounges, a spa and salon, and a pool. All of the hotel rooms are also being redone.

"What I love about the Trump Marina is it is a great box," Fertitta said last week in Houston. "When you drive down that whole big, grand entry, and they've got the Marina on one side, and the building on the other, you go up those escalators, and there's that big, huge high ceiling. Even the casino, it's a big, simple box with towers.

"If you took everything out of it, it would look like it was just built today because the structure is great," he said. "We're just coming in and redoing every surface, and it'll look like a brand new property when we're finished."

Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or sparmley@phillynews.com.