Get ready for a night on the town with Joey and John — young, loaded, ready to party, and changing the face of Atlantic City. (Just remember: What happens in A.C. stays in A.C., all right?)

Ten years ago — hell, make that five — Atlantic City was purely a gambling town, overrun with Caddy-driving AARP members in shirts that scream and grandmothers with handbags bulging with coins and Kleenex. When young hell-raisers like Joey would visit, they wouldn’t stay. They’d live in Ocean City or Stone Harbor, dine and drink in Avalon, Margate and Sea Isle. Trips to A.C. were for dice-throwing, card-counting and kitsch. That all changed in 2003, when the great golden tower of the Borgata rose up atop a landfill, symbolizing the burial of A.C.’s image as a trash town for the seedy and the nearly deceased. Borgata bet $1.1 billion that it could draw a stylish, youthful and, above all else, wealthy clientele by valuing entertainment as much as Texas Hold-’Em. High-end restaurants, clubs and bars would stand on their own as attractions. Tour buses crammed with septuagenarians packing rolls of quarters were not invited.

Proof that the Borgata has triggered a paradigm shift is scattered all over town. Over at the Tropicana, step into the $285 million Quarter, with an upscale shopping hall and dining heavy-hitters like the Palm and Carmine’s, and you’d think you’re in Vegas. The crusty old Showboat added a House of Blues that’s drawn red-hot stars like Eminem and the White Stripes. Next year, Caesars will reveal its $175 million conversion of an old pier into the Pier, with tenants named Gucci, Armani and Vuitton. Tiki bars line the beaches — a no-brainer concept that only recently took hold. Real estate here has finally caught up to the rest of the Shore. For the casinos, the summer of 2005 was the most lucrative in the town’s history. Not since the Rat Pack days has life been this good, and it’s looking better, and less wrinkled, by the minute. In fact, in two years’ time, Atlantic City could be the new Old City.

None of this surprises Joey, who’s been a fixture here since before he was legally allowed to belly up to the tables. It’s 10 o’clock by the time we’re served our filets at the Hilton’s Oaks Steakhouse, where, of course, everyone from the maître d’ to the doorman knows Joey from 50 yards away. We were supposed to start our night two hours ago. John and apparently everyone but me knows that Joey is notoriously late, a trait that’s earned him the nickname “Joey Bridge” — as in “I’m on the bridge, I’ll be there soon,” which is never the case. Joey knows John from the sixth grade in Williams-town, New Jersey, a bond that held up even after John left for Lehigh and Virginia Law, while Joey used street smarts and hustle to make a living back home, eventually opening a series of Dr. Joe’s coffee stands on Temple’s campus. He recently bought a two-bedroom condo in John’s building here, the Ocean Club, nestled between the Hilton and the Trop. John grabbed his first condo at the Club in 2003, for $160,000. Joey bought the same model last year for a hundred grand more, and just sold it for $320,000. Though John lives year-round in Center City and Joey’s still back in Williamstown, you’ll find them driving south on the Expressway virtually every weekend in the summer, and more than a few times in the off-season as well.

 “Joey,” says John, who’s also in the jeans-and-untucked-button-down uniform, looking vaguely like Ben Stiller. “Tell him about the Wave.” That’s the club at Trump Marina where we’ll eventually find the Tara Reid clone.

 “We’d order Cristal at $700 a bottle and invite 20 girls to come sit down with us,” Joey says proudly of the old days. “One night, I took home 20 bottles we didn’t even drink. Just loaded them up and walked out.” His entire haul was comped by the casino, of course.

Joey, you see, has an addictive personality, and gambling is his poison. Keep that in mind when you contemplate a young Joey in 1995, just after hitting the legal gambling age, playing Caribbean Stud Poker at the Taj Mahal and throwing down a royal flush. The pot was worth $280,000. “I jumped up on the table,” he says, and from that moment forward, like Tom Cruise on Oprah’s couch, Joey lost himself in both joy and madness. He spread his winnings around at all the casinos until hosts at every one of them were outdoing each other for his attention. Limos. Penthouses. Unlimited bar tabs. Trips to San Juan. Comps are the ultimate bait-and-switch — casinos lure the big cats with extravagant freebies, knowing that maybe not tonight, but soon, even the hottest hands turn cold. When they do, all those lost chips will more than pay for the on-the-house suites and booze.

Some nights, Joey walked away five figures up. Others, he’d take a $30,000 hit. As they always do, the bad nights started outweighing the good ones, but the party didn’t stop. “You would give me your last dime just to keep me in action so we could have another weekend like we did last Saturday,” he says. By 25, he’d lost it all and then some, prompting his introduction to Gamblers Anonymous — “GA,” as he calls it, with a dismissive shrug of his thick shoulders. “I got all entwined in the show. It’s all one big show. But now I’ve got it under control.”

You wouldn’t necessarily know it by watching him a half-hour later as we set out for the marina. Unable to resist the lure of the tables, Joey wanders over to the blackjack pit.

“Just one shoe,” John insists, referring to the number of hands his buddy will play.

“One shoe,” Joey agrees. “Then we’re outta here.”

Fifteen minutes pass. John is already through his $500, but Joey’s on a streak — betting well over the $50 minimum, splitting pairs, charming the dealer. The dealer busts, and Joey rakes in $400. The next hand is another winner, $300 more.

“This game isn’t that hard!” he yells, as the dealer smiles and rest of the table chuckles. “Are you open all night?”

Joey keeps his word once the shoe is empty. On our way to the Wave, he spots his wife, who works for one of the casinos, and wisely hands her a grand from his winnings. He pockets another dime for himself. Just a little walking-around money.

He’ll need that cash at the Wave. While Joey still gets hooked up, it’s not like when he was among the few — other than Donald Trump himself — who could score a private booth here. He’s seen it all. Guys closing the deal with three different women in one night. A high-roller doing his best Scarface impression with a Mount Olympus of coke piled on his table. Hosts who would not only offer you a suite with a hot tub and a stocked bar, but women to fill it. This was their Borgata, long before that joint came along. Now the whole damn town is starting to feel like this place: vibrant, alive, and, in some cases, that home-run combination of tipsy and scantily clad. So why wait in line with all the other mooks at Borgata’s Gypsy Bar across the street when there’s always a table for Joey Palermo here? Tonight, as the sorority girls draw a crowd of eager guys with long sideburns and multiple drinks in their hands, Joey isn’t getting comped. Yet he’s still coming back.

“Look at all the young girls here,” John says, like a tour guide. He spots a dancer, a dead ringer for Dyan Cannon, minus about two decades. “Did you watch Ally McBeal? She looks like the judge. This place is also a big hangout for cougars.” That’s code for older women preying on younger men, and sure enough, there’s a hard-bodied brunette in glasses and her blond friend, both closing in on 40, looking our way.

“If you can’t get laid here,” Joey says with a grin, “you’ve got some problems.”