Joey Vento, the tattooed, trash-talking, motorcycle-revving founder of Geno’s Steaks, the legendary cheesesteak joint in South Philadelphia, died Aug. 23 at his home in Shamong, N.J. He had a heart attack, the Associated Press reported. He was 71.
Mr. Vento figured in one of the great food rivalries of modern America: the fight, which sometimes looks more like a brawl, over who makes the best cheesesteak in Philly.
Like bagels in New York and pizza in Chicago, the cheesesteak inspires Philadelphians to use words such as “exquisite” to describe the Italian roll weighed down by meat and topped with cheese. Women in mink coats line up behind boys in Eagles caps to place their orders in ritualistic fashion — “wit” or “witout” onions.
All the while, the proprietors watch the scene with pride approaching hubris.
It would be imprecise to call Mr. Vento “the king” of cheesesteaks. Pat Olivieri claimed the crown when he founded a rival business across the intersection, called Pat’s. Neither was he the prince; that title belonged to Steve Iliescu, of Steve’s Prince of Steaks. Yet no one ever questioned Mr. Vento’s standing in South Philly, an old Italian neighborhood built on the artery-clogging, yet all-American, tradition of street food.
Few people who set foot in Mr. Vento’s neighborhood failed to see, or smell, his unmistakable establishment, which he founded in 1966. It was a “palace of neon,” said former Philadelphia Inquirer food columnist Rick Nichols. “It looked like a Mummers outfit set on fire at night,” he said, referring to the outlandish parade held New Year’s Day in Philadelphia.
In case anyone failed to notice the neon lights, Mr. Vento griddled up a national controversy in 2006. Aggrieved by the influx of immigrants in the neighborhood, he hung a sign in his shop: “This is America. When ordering speak English.”
That move brought national media attention to Geno’s. Mr. Vento appeared on television, sporting his heavy bling, and defended his right to free speech. The store would not refuse to serve a non-English speaker, he said, but certain standards would be enforced.
Critics said Mr. Vento had crossed a line from serving up the swagger many customers enjoyed to inflaming real sensitivities in the community. Mexican restaurant workers and other immigrants had flooded to Philadelphia, Nichols said, especially from New York, where business suffered after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
It was also pointed out that Mr. Vento, the grandson of Italian immigrants, perhaps should have been more accepting of the neighborhood’s natural evolution.
He said people were being too touchy.
“I grew up where they called me every name in the book,” Mr. Vento told the Inquirer in 2006. “Wop! Dago! Guinea! Midget! But come on! You’ve got to roll with the punches. . . . My attitude is, if you’re 6-foot-6, I’m 6-foot-7.”
In fact, Mr. Vento was 5-foot-5.
Joseph Vento was born in December 1939 in Philadelphia. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade and grew up working for his father, who owned a steak shop not far from where Geno’s stands today.
Mr. Vento briefly served in the Army in the 1950s. He got a hardship discharge when his father was convicted of hiring a hit man to kill someone who, in turn, had failed to carry out another murder. Mr. Vento’s brother also had a criminal record.
“My family history wasn’t that great,” he told the Inquirer. “But I reversed it. I brought the respect back. My father and my brother are laughing now — they’re so proud of what I did.”
Survivors include his wife of more than 50 years, the former Eileen Perno; his son, Geno Vento, who, said store manager Jimmy Reds, was “named for the building”; a brother; and a sister.
There was another side to Mr. Vento that was hidden, to some degree, by the bad-boy bluster. He was generous in his donations to charitable causes of all types. He gave $100,000 to support an Elton John AIDS-awareness concert and raised money for police charities, the Inquirer reported.
As for Mr. Vento’s joint and the cheesesteaks he served up, they were what they were.
“Say what you will about the cheesesteaks at Geno’s Steaks,” Nichols wrote in 2006, “(OK, I will: They’re about a C+), nobody does neon better.”