Friends and colleagues pay respects to Joey Vento

A life-size cutout of Joey Vento stood in his stead behind the counter at Geno's Steaks, Ninth Street and Passyunk Avenue.
A life-size cutout of Joey Vento stood in his stead behind the counter at Geno's Steaks, Ninth Street and Passyunk Avenue. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 25, 2011

Straight-shooting, brash-talking, big of heart, deep of pocket, Joey Vento was a complicated simple guy who embraced America-first politics, hard work, homeless families, and Elton John.

A self-made millionaire, Vento built up Geno's, his loud and proud cheesesteak business, from a dilapidated shop on the wedged corner of Ninth and Passyunk, a few blocks from his childhood home.

When he died Tuesday at 71, at home in bed, having beaten back colon cancer but losing to a massive heart attack, he left the legacy of a man who didn't waste time worrying about nuance or consistency or whatever other people might think of him.

He gained a national reputation for his famous sign asking patrons to order in English, and cannily fed his image as a commonsense voice of red-blooded Americans.

The glass sides of the restaurant - as well as the underside of the street awning and tops of the outdoor tables - are plastered with evidence of where he stood and what he valued.

On display are more than a thousand police and firefighter badges from across the country. Photographs show Vento with celebrity conservatives (Rick Santorum, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin), television and movie stars (Tony Danza, Sylvester Stallone, a very young Jay Leno), and local politicians (Vince Fumo, Joe Sestak).

Interspersed throughout, he enshrined snippets of political rhetoric such as: "Before Made in America With Pride. Now Made in China With Poison and any Other [expletive] They Can Dump in the USA . . . Buy American."

But even people who found Vento's views obnoxious were willing to buy his food.

"Es una casa mala," said Jose Gutierrez, a landscaping worker from El Salvador. Translation: "This is a bad place." Then he ate another french fry and laughed, "But these are good."

Late Wednesday afternoon, the line of customers at the 24/7 shop stretched around the corner. As usual, it was a human kaleidoscope.

"Can I have two wit' Wiz," ordered a young Asian guy speaking fluent South Philly. Asked to comment on Vento's passing, he waved his hand dismissively. "I know nothing about it. I'm from Jersey."

Someone had placed a flower bouquet on the sidewalk beneath a sign memorializing slain Police Officer Daniel Faulkner. Vento donated generously to help the families of Philadelphia officers killed in the line of duty. After 9/11, he held a 76-hour fund-raising marathon that took in $120,000.

He pushed himself hard, regularly showing up for work at 4 a.m., and he expected no less dedication from his employees, said Jimmy Reds, Geno's manager. Reds, who grew up with Vento and worked for him for 40 years, said his friend and boss had no patience with anyone who slacked off or failed to follow his meticulous directions.

"He doesn't like the customer to get a mess," Reds said Wednesday, the loss so new he still used the present tense. "He wants the onions on the back of the roll. He likes the customer to take a bite of the sandwich and get a piece of meat and a piece of cheese."

If Vento was rigid about the architecture of his cheesesteaks and his staff's work ethic, he was forgiving in other realms.

During a dispute with city officials over regulations, he was cited for wearing too much jewelry in the kitchen. Eventually, the case was dropped, and Vento continued to wear his signature gold chain and medallion, watch, and diamond stud, and he made peace with City Hall.

He had sympathy for those down on their luck. Reading newspaper accounts about children with cancer or families out of work, he would track them down and send them checks.

And though his relationship with some members of his family remained rocky, he showed some grace there as well.

Vento opened Geno's in 1966 after a bitter fight with his father, James, owner of Jim's Steaks across the street. Meat and bread suppliers loyal to his father refused to sell their goods to him. His father died in prison, convicted of contracting a murder. But Vento kept a framed photograph of his parents on a shrinelike shelf in the restaurant, next to several of Vento with his wife of 51 years. Nearby, he displayed a Popeye mug stamped "I Yam What I Yam, 100 Percent American."

Although he was thrown out of Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary School in the ninth grade, Vento gave thousands of dollars to the school, whose student population is thoroughly diverse, with Hispanic, Asian, and African American children.

"My family history wasn't that great," Vento once told a reporter. "But I reversed it. I brought the respect back."

And he did it with pure bootstrap resolve.

"Nobody left him nothing. He did it himself," said Lou Capozzoli, who has owned Ray's Happy Birthday Bar on the north end of the same block since he and Vento were barely old enough to shave.

Outside the bar Wednesday, a blackboard sandwich sign read "Thanks Joey." The gratitude, Capozzoli said, was "for being a neighbor. For being a friend."


Vento Services

A Funeral Mass for Joey Vento will be offered at noon Saturday, Aug. 27, at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. Friends may call at the cathedral from 9 a.m.


Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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