[lg policy] Owner of South Philadelphia cheese-steak stand who required customers to order in English dies

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Wed Aug 24 15:56:15 UTC 2011

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joey Vento, the owner of a landmark south
Philadelphia cheesesteak stand who told customers to order in English,
has died at age 71.Vento's nephew Joseph Perno, a manager at Geno's
Steaks, told The Associated Press that Vento had a massive heart
attack and died Tuesday. He said family members had just gotten out of
the hospital and wouldn't be making any immediate statements.

In November, Perno said Vento had been diagnosed with colorectal
cancer a few months earlier and was to have surgery at Memorial
Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Longtime friend
Domenic Chiavaroli told the Philadelphia Daily News and The
Philadelphia Inquirer that Vento had been at the cheesesteak stand
Tuesday morning, as he was every morning before opening, but went home
to Shamong, N.J., later in the day and told his wife that he wasn't
feeling well.

"I've been coming here since 1967," Chiavaroli said. "Joe was a good
guy. He always tried to help everybody." According to Geno's website,
Vento learned the cheesesteak business from his father, who had opened
Jim's Steaks in the early 1940s. The site says Vento opened Geno's in
1966 "with $6 in his pocket, two boxes of steaks and some hot dogs."

He came up with the name after seeing a broken door in the back of his
store upon which a neighborhood boy named Gino had painted his name,
and he changed it to Geno's to not conflict with a food chain of the
era, the site says. The south Philadelphia location, however, was a
given, because "he figured that if he was going to sell a steak, he
had to be where they were already eating them."

Geno's and its chief rival across the street, Pat's King of Steaks,
have become the focus of an area described as "ground zero for
cheesesteaks," a traditionally Italian community that has grown more
diverse with an influx of immigrants from Asia and Latin America and
is a popular tourist destination.

In June 2006, Vento and Geno's made headlines over two small signs
posted at the shop stating, "This is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING 'PLEASE
SPEAK ENGLISH.'" Vento said he posted the signs because of concerns
over the debate on immigration reform and the increasing number of
people who couldn't order in English. Vento said he never refused
service to anyone because he or she couldn't speak English, but
critics argued that the signs discouraged customers of certain
backgrounds from eating at the shop.

Amid extensive publicity, the city's Commission on Human Relations
began looking into whether Vento was violating Philadelphia's
ordinance banning discrimination in employment, public accommodation
and housing on the basis of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. The
following year, the commission found probable cause against Geno's for
discrimination. The case then went to a public hearing, at which an
attorney for the commission argued that the signs were about
intimidation, not political speech. The matter then went to a
three-member panel, which ruled 2-1 in March 2008 that the signs
didn't violate the ordinance.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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