Madonna, Chris Rock and dozens of other big-name celebrities raised $5.5 million at a star-studded benefit at the United Nations to help poor and sick children around the world.

Gucci and Madonna's "A Night to Benefit Raising Malawi and UNICEF," a $2,500-a-plate dinner and live auction hosted by Rock on Wednesday night, drew stars such as Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jerry Seinfeld, Jennifer Lopez, Gwen Stefani and Salma Hayek.

Photo Essay: Stars Come Out for Madonna

Celebrities paid $2,500 to $10,000 each to dine on grappa-cured salmon, wild striped bass, tart of goat cheese, foraged mushrooms, truffled mashed potatoes and sticky toffee pudding with creme fraiche. Madonna played videos of Malawi and introduced children from the southern African country. Rihanna, Timbaland and Alicia Keys played music afterward.

Cruise bid $100,000 for a sports package that included the privilege of hanging out at Yankee Stadium with Alex Rodriguez and a private hour playing soccer with David Beckham, but lost out to a bidder who ponied up $350,000.

"It was an extraordinary evening. The whole evening was quite moving," Cruise told The Associated Press, accompanied by Holmes, who agreed. Cruise called the United Nations "an absolute necessity" because of the staff who dedicate their lives to building peace.

A trip to Paris with a tour of a vineyard and lunch with Francois-Henri Pinault and his fiancee Hayek went for $120,000. The priciest auction item was a $600,000 winning bid to tour with Madonna and take a dance class with her and Paltrow.

The stars themselves were dazzled by the event.

"It's a safe bet to say that this is the event of the year so far — everyone I've spoken to is saying they're stunned by how grand this whole thing is," said Debra Messing, who attended the party with her husband, "Fool's Gold" writer Daniel Zelman.

On the upper level of the cocktail reception area, Cruise and Holmes, who was dressed in a sculpted red Alexander McQueen dress, talked to Jerry Seinfeld and his wife, Jessica, about real estate.

Near the entrance, Drew Barrymore, wearing a black-and-yellow Gucci dress, and her new beau, Justin Long, had a question for Jennifer Lopez.

"When are we going to do game night?!" Barrymore asked the pregnant singer, who was accompanied by husband Marc Anthony and a team of bodyguards.

The night was an unusual blend of charity and commercial promotion for the U.N. and made some of its officials, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, uneasy.

Gucci, which paid the costs, pegged the event to the Friday opening of its Manhattan flagship store on Fifth Avenue and put its logo and UNICEF's behind the walkway where celebrities were photographed.

The United Nations Children's Fund relies on $1 billion in private sector donations for its $3.5 billion global budget, but the U.N. had never before granted permission to a company to erect tents on the north lawn of the U.N. for such a lavish event with a commercial tie-in.

Ban, in an unusual move for a U.N. chief who has recently sought the help of celebrities to focus attention on world problems, left New York for Chicago hours before the event got under way even though his appointment there wasn't until Thursday and his schedule for Wednesday night was open.

Alicia BDarcena Ibarra, Ban's undersecretary general for administration and management, said her office "should have investigated more fully" before it approved UNICEF'S request to hold the event. BDarcena Ibarra said she did not believe it was correct for Gucci to publicize the event in conjunction with the opening of a new store "and I think we have to look into that."

Ban nonetheless told reporters Tuesday he was confident there would be no problems.

"I understand that the main purpose of this event will raise funds for a humanitarian purpose, and I am sure that the proceeds will go to the purpose of this event," he said.

Organizers said the proceeds would be collected by the Gucci Foundation, a registered charity, and split among Raising Malawi, an advocacy group that operates under The Kabbalah Centre International, and the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, which supports the United Nations Children's Fund.

Security was tight and few reporters were allowed inside the dinner.

Though it is a U.N. agency, UNICEF's operations are overseen by an independent board that doesn't answer to the secretary-general. The U.S. Fund for UNICEF said Wednesday there is "no formal relationship between Raising Malawi and UNICEF."

Madonna has tried to help Malawi orphans since she and her husband, Guy Ritchie began raising a Malawian boy they want to adopt. Rights groups questioned her actions since she took him from an orphanage in 2006 at the age of 1. According to UNICEF, HIV/AIDS affects almost 1 million people in Malawi, including 83,000 children, and half of the country's 1 million orphans have lost one or both parents to AIDS.

"I've earned a reputation for many things: pushing the envelope, for being a provocateur, for never taking no for an answer. For endlessly reinventing myself, for being a cult member, a kidnapper. For being ambitious, outrageous and irreverent. And for never settling for second best," Madonna told the dinner.

"But I don't just want you to write me a check. I'm more interested in your heart. I want to take you on that journey with me tonight. I want you to feel as inspired as I do right now," she said. "Yes, I want to raise Malawi. But if I can do that — if we can do that — then the sky's the limit."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.