Antonio and Yvonne Sabato (Stefano Montesi)

What kind of person would go on a reality dating show with his mother in tow, giving every potential love connection the once-over? A nice Jewish boy, of course—one like Antonio Sabato Jr., the Italian-born heartthrob best known for gracing a 90-foot Times Square billboard wearing only his Calvin Klein briefs and a sultry half-smile.

Sabato—whose impeccable abs prompted the late New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp to invoke comparisons to Michelangelo’s David—comes by his Jewishness via his maternal grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who concealed her background in Communist postwar Czechoslovakia. “When I tell people I’m an Italian Jew, they’re very amused by it,” he said in a recent telephone interview about his dating show, My Antonio, which premieres this weekend on VH1. “But obviously by blood I’m Jewish, because my mother is.”

His mother, Yvonne, is the reason Sabato was speaking for the first time about his Jewish roots. Her heritage isn’t really a feature of My Antonio, which presents Yvonne instead as a stereotypical Italian mother—which, granted, is more or less the same thing as a stereotypical Jewish mother—but Sabato told Tablet he hopes the show can turn his mother, a singer who gave up her career in Europe when her children were born, into a star. “My mother is an international woman,” said her 37-year-old son. “She is not the typical Italian, behind the pots and pans.”

Yvonne Sabato was born in Prague in 1947. Her mother, a dancer, was the only one of her family to escape the Nazis; after the war, she’d married an aristocrat who refused to join the Communist Party. The government forced the family to join the circus, where Yvonne and her father had an acrobatic act involving a unicycle. Yvonne’s mother hid her Jewish background, sending the young girl to Catholic school. Over the years, Yvonne said, she wondered why she didn’t have any relatives on her mother’s side, but never had the courage to ask about the past. “You start thinking, and over the years you get older and say, ‘What is wrong with this picture?’” Yvonne said in an interview. “But in those days parents did not talk about certain things.”

In the late 1960s, the family toured Italy; once there, Yvonne refused to return to Prague and remained in Rome, where she married Antonio Sabato, a spaghetti Western star who had appeared in John Frankenheimer’s 1966 car-racing epic Grand Prix. In 1987, Yvonne and Antonio, with their two children, moved to Los Angeles, where, eventually, she discovered her background. The Red Cross tracing service informed Yvonne that her grandparents and uncle had been deported to Auschwitz—a place she had visited with her mother as a teenager, never realizing it was her own family’s graveyard. She was interested in her Jewish roots, but she never became religiously observant. “You grow up with something for that many years—Christmas, trees—it’s hard to let it go, when you don’t know anything about this other religion,” she said

Her son wasn’t raised Jewish, either. Antonio, who has occasionally been photographed wearing a large cross around his neck, described his religious upbringing as “very liberal, Judaism, Catholicism.” (“I appreciate every type of religion,” he added.) “We were educated, we knew about the Holocaust—I remember seeing the ovens and the showers,” he explained. Now, as a parent—he has two children, ages 15 and six—and said he was waiting for the kids to start asking questions. “I don’t want to impose it, but I think it’s important for them to know things that happened in our past,” he said. He hopes he and his mother can visit Israel together. “People have to know that cultures—there have been many over the years, that have been through a lot,” he said. “Jewish people are tough people, they believe in something and believe it really strong, and I find it fascinating that a small country like Israel is as powerful as it is.”

For now, though, they contented themselves with a trip to Hawaii, where My Antonio was shot. Yvonne said she had initially hoped her son would leave the family business, especially after watching his father struggle to get parts. “I wanted him to be anything but this—a dentist, a doctor, anything,” Yvonne said. But she relished talking about the show—which features Sabato’s ex-wife, model Tully Jensen (of both Vogue and Playboy fame), competing alongside a bevy of saccharine women for his heart. Yvonne appears about halfway through the first episode, decked out in a floppy wide-brimmed black hat and form-fitting dress, muttering to her son in a sonorous mix of Italian and English to get rid of “that one with the boobs.” In short order, she sends an apparently aimless 28-year-old girl squealing off camera in tears after asking, “Don’t you have any ambitions?” Sabato chides Yvonne to go easy on the women, but, in an aside, he acknowledges she was probably right: “I know my mother will tell me what’s best for me.”