'Apprentice's' Rancic is fired up!

In Thursday's much-anticipated finale of "The Apprentice," a television contest many saw as a compelling take on corporate life and others viewed as an infomercial for Donald Trump, the Chicago cigar man bested the New York investment manager.

Bill Rancic was Trump's final answer to the "reality" series question of who would get to be his "apprentice" for a year, earning a salary of $250,000 and the right to nominal supervision of the construction of Trump's impending Chicago hotel.

Internet stogie broker Rancic, 32, survived 15 other contestants in a weekly elimination tourney that ended with Thursday night's two-hour broadcast and became, during its three-month run on NBC, the most-talked-about television series of the season and something close to a sensation.

"Bill, you're hired," Trump said to Rancic, live, on the same New York soundstage where NBC's "Saturday Night Live" is taped.

Then he gave Rancic, who grew up in Orland Park, the length of a commercial break to decide whether he would manage the Chicago project or the operation of his new California seaside golf resort and housing development.

"Chicago's where I'm from and to me it's the best place in the world," Rancic said, opting to stay at home and oversee, with what Trump promised will be lots of supervision, the 90-story Trump International Hotel and Tower, on the Chicago River site of the current Sun-Times building.

"I guess I won't be able to rename it," Rancic joked about the building, which Trump, with typical bluster, vowed would remake the Chicago skyline and "raise the standards of architectural excellence throughout the world."

Rancic, who built the reportedly successful Cigars Around the World Web-based business after graduating from Chicago's Loyola University in 1992, beat Kwame Jackson, 29, a Harvard MBA who let unscripted TV's siren draw him from an investment job with the Goldman Sachs firm.

"I'm on top of the world right now," Rancic told the Tribune via cell phone while riding in his new car to the after-party at New York's Trump Tower. "It doesn't get any sweeter than this. ...

"I had a few bumps early on, but the goal at the beginning was to get everything under control. I didn't employ a micromanagement style throughout the 13 weeks. I adapted my management style to the situation at hand. To be an entrepreneur you have to be versatile. I think that's what helped me out here."

Thanks to the series, Trump, the New York real-estate developer with a knack for superlatives and escaping financial difficulties, became a pop star and his send-off to contestants--"you're fired"--turned into a catchphrase.

Contestants battled each week to earn and impress in a series of trumped-up fiscal tasks, such as selling lemonade on New York streets or renting out a party room in a Trump building, and followers of the show debated their relative strengths as if they were coworkers.

Thursday's finale, most of it taped last fall, saw Rancic and Jackson running teams of previously eliminated contestants to prove their managerial mettle in a broadcast that included an early censor's bleep, but not for widely offensive words that, in other contexts, describe a donkey and a female dog.

Rancic had to supervise a Trump charity golf tournament at a course the developer owns, while Jackson had to run a pop concert and charity event at his Atlantic City hotel featuring fellow reality TV star Jessica Simpson (MTV's "Newlyweds"). The series spent much time at the Trump casino hotel and made much of Trump as an icon of capitalism but did not mention the heavy debt burden that has put his Trump Hotels & Casinos Resorts Inc. in the news.

Both events depicted Thursday had glitches, but when it came time to face Trump for his final decision, what seemed to do Jackson in was his failure to address the lies told him by "employee" Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth. Omarosa, as she was known, had been made to appear the show's villain, in the masterful editing of Mark Burnett ("Survivor"), the executive producer of the show along with Trump.

Rancic was seen as frantic but efficient at his last task, Jackson as a little too laid back for Trump's taste, which, as the show highlighted, tends to run toward overstatement.

The series debuted Jan. 8 and was an instant hit with viewers. NBC immediately scrapped plans to run it on Wednesday night so that it could occupy an hour of the network's once-vaunted but fading "must-see TV" lineup on Thursdays.

There, surrounded by scripted hits "Friends" and "ER," the show continued to grow. In last week's penultimate episode it was the second most popular series on television, behind Tuesday's "American Idol," and it was most popular among the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic.

Thursday's audience was expected to be much bigger still, given the buzz for the series, a level of cultural noise not achieved by a TV series since the finals of the first "American Idol." The show was one of the first reality series to feature well-dressed, well-spoken contestants and proved especially popular with higher-income viewers and those who hadn't watch a lot of unscripted television previously.

And NBC was taking full advantage. It will run two cycles of "The Apprentice" next season and was pitching "You're Fired" apparel on the screen during the show Thursday. Trump, who claims he doesn't need the money or particularly want the fame of being a television star, popped up in an ad for Verizon telephone service that mimicked the boardroom setting of his hit.

The NBC News department planned to try to extend the ratings magic too. Its "Today" show Friday morning was to feature "Apprentice" aftermath, and its "Dateline NBC" news program Friday night, in a "special event," was scheduled to present two more hours on Donald Trump and the series.

And on the NBC-owned WMAQ-Ch. 5 in Chicago, Rancic's win was the lead story on the 10 p.m. news.