Stu Bykofsky: Joey Vento, whose cheesesteak biz was spiced with philanthropy

Posted: August 25, 2011

THE LOW POINT of Joey Vento's career probably was facing trumped-up charges that dragged him before the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. He was accused of discrimination, but no matter how high the kangaroos in the court jumped, they couldn't produce anyone who was discriminated against at his neon-loaded, nurse-clean sandwich shop. At the time of the hearing, Joey told me CHR "violated numerous civil rights of me."

The high point of Joey Vento's career was showing up at Geno's before daybreak to prepare his iconic sandwich shop for the day's business.

The 5-foot-5, tattooed, gold chain-laden South Philadelphian was one hardworking multimillionaire.

A generous one, too. In death, the media (particularly print) gave him the accolades usually denied him in life.

He became a minor national celebrity, especially to conservatives, after the infamous "order in English" faux controversy. He was roasted by most local columnists and editorial writers because they are liberal and hated Joey's conservative messages.

Since he left school after the sixth grade, he was an imperfect messenger. Grammar often tripped him up like untied shoelaces, but people seemed to understand him anyway.

I went to Geno's yesterday - a warm, fine morning except for the sadness of the mission - to get some color for this column, and to pay my respects to Joey's widow, Eileen, and son, Geno.

In the interest of full disclosure, when a previous sponsor bailed last year, Joey wrote a check making Geno's Steaks the title sponsor of the Stu Bykofsky Candidates' Comedy Night. His money went to Variety, the charity the show supports, but I had been a Vento fan before that.

Although I don't share most of his political beliefs, and was more amused than convinced by his right-wing, Obama-bashing radio commercials, I was a fan because Joey was sincere and colorful, a man bursting with passion for what he thought was right. Sometimes far right. Tea parties loved him.

Lacking formal education, he had smarts, ambition and energy, becoming a multimillionaire off a single, South Philly sandwich shop. No wonder he loved America and free enterprise so much.

Joey's friend and political ally Dom Giordano, of WPHT (1210-AM), was broadcasting live from the tip of the sidewalk, facing cheesesteak archrival Pat's.

Giordano surmised that Joey had always supported police officers and police charities in part to atone for the criminal activities of his father and brother.

Joey often gave money as silently as a burglar, other times as loud as a firetruck. The private giving, son Geno says, was usually to people facing huge medical bills. Publicly, Joey gave money to AIDS, cancer, sickle-cell charities, among others, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Joey didn't shrink from publicity and sometimes courted it because, personally, he enjoyed the spotlight and shrewdly understood it was also good for business. Again, smarts.

The shop is stuffed with photos of Joey in the grip of various celebrities - from stars to senators to strippers.

He had big friends but never a big head, according to 76-year-old Vincent Grantone, a South Philly lifer who knew Joey for more than half a century.

Over his customary morning coffee, Grantone tells me Geno's improved the neighborhood. "Just looking at this place makes you feel better," he says, then mentions Joey's support of the Church of the Annunciation, 10th and Dickinson, and its school, which has a substantial immigrant enrollment.

He was emotionally attached to the school, Geno says, because his dad attended there.

Joey would make cash donations, he'd buy books and school supplies and 50-50 raffle tickets.

"He'd buy 1,000 tickets and if he won the jackpot" - and with 1,000 tickets he did win, more than once - "he would give it right back," Geno says.

Charity, controversy and cheesesteaks.

For a guy who stood only 5-foot-5, Joey Vento leaves big footprints.

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