Joey Vento, owner of Geno’s Steaks in Philadelphia, died on Tuesday of a massive heart attack. He was 71.
Let me give you an idea of how successful Vento’s business was. I’ve never been to Philadelphia and I’ve never had a cheesesteak. Okay, I can’t eat cheese. But the point is I knew who he was. As memory serves, it was the Southwest Airlines commercial that first drew my attention. The one where the guy in the cab says Philly is “like a baby New York.” Then, of course, when there’s a Phillies game on ESPN or FOX, they invariably show Geno’s Steaks.
In 2005, Vento got into hot water with the City of Philadelphia because of a sign he put up in his window which read, “This is America. When Ordering “Speak English.” Yet for all the controversy, Vento never refused service to anyone. But it didn’t stop the Philadelphia Human Rights Commission from initiating a complaint against him. However, the Philadelphia HCR ended up ruling in Vento’s favor in 2008. But then again one of the key witnesses in the case who was offended by the sign nevertheless allowed her children to continue to go to Geno’s because the cheesefries were delicious. I mean it’s not like she couldn’t have told her children to patronize Pat’s King of Steaks instead.
Yet the controversy still leaves a bitter taste with some. In Philadelphia Magazine, Johnny Goodtimes (I’m assuming it’s a pen name) wrote:
Furthermore, he ripped the immigrants inability to speak English, calling them “morons.” All of this without a hint of irony, despite the fact that his own English was highly suspect….His supreme lack of irony would have been amusing had it not been so spiteful.
But Stu Bykofsky of the Philadelphia Daily News takes a far more charitable view. “Since he left school after the sixth grade, he was an imperfect messenger,” wrote Bykofsky, “Grammar often tripped him up like untied shoelaces, but people seemed to understand him anyway.”
Contrary to Goodtimes’ assertion, I cannot find an instance in print or on video in which Vento referred to non-English speakers as “morons.”
Now if I were running a cheesesteak shop, I probably wouldn’t have put a sign like that in my window. But that’s just me. After all, I’m not running a cheesesteak shop. I’m not working 18 hour days for 35 years. I didn’t build a multi-million dollar business from scratch. Joey Vento pursued happiness in his way, achieved it and shared his good fortune. As Ronald Reagan would say, “Not bad. Not bad at all.”
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