Philly cheesesteak king Geno Vento steps into the limelight

MICHAEL HINKELMAN / DAILY NEWS STAFF Geno Vento stands in front of the world-famous family business.
MICHAEL HINKELMAN / DAILY NEWS STAFF Geno Vento stands in front of the world-famous family business.
Posted: March 20, 2014

TWO WEEKS ago, Geno Vento stood in the back of the the Penn's Landing Playhouse. It was the VIP performance of "The Calamari Sisters' Big, Fat, Italian Wedding," and Vento, wearing a short beard, thick gold chain and T-shirt beneath a loose-fitting gray suit, unobtrusively watched the wacky musical comedy's two characters, Carmela and Delphine Calamari, sing, dance, crack jokes and cook sausages.

The 42-year-old cheesesteak heir, the guy named after his family's South Philly steak shop (and not the other way around) let out a few well-timed hoots. But otherwise, he was silent, focused, taking mental notes.

Vento is the show's main backer and one of its producers. That night, as on many weekend nights, he was looking for slipups. Looking, for example, for "a light that doesn't come on at the right time, or should be more faded, whereas it was more of a silhouette kinda thing," he said.

Earlier, he'd come to the rescue during Carmela's costume crisis. "Her pants didn't look right," he said, "We had to do re-stitching."

He's also instructed stagehands to reorganize backstage. And advised on dialogue. Recruited sponsors. Run production meetings. He's even appeared on-stage as the warm-up - "I get the audience going before the show. You know, 'How many virgins are in the audience?' That kinda thing."

Who woulda thought? Who would expect that a guy with fried steak, onions and Whiz (or, at least, sharp provolone) in his DNA would possess any opinion on the staging of kitschy interpretations of "Food, Glorious Food" (here: "Meat, Glorious Meat") and "Goin' to the Chapel"?

Who would think that he'd fall for a slapstick story about two oversized Italian-American sorta-sisters' love of carbs, meats and men, a show favored mostly by mature female audiences?

Broadway bound

His friends would. His late parents, Joey and Eileen, would have. His co-workers sure might.

After all, Vento's seen "Rent" more than 100 times. He's a major fan of "Mamma Mia" and "Jersey Boys." He cited Elphaba, from "Wicked," and Angel, from "Rent," as inspirations. (The latter inspired a Halloween costume.)

He is not, however, trained in the theater arts, hasn't formally studied acting, production or TV. Instead, he said, his affinity for the entertainment industry, especially for glitz and glamour, "came naturally to me. I started doing TV when I was 10. To me, it was normal to have Justin Timberlake come in [to Geno's Steaks], or Britney Spears, Dr. Phil, Oprah . . . "

Vento considers many of the celebs who've patronized his family's neon-lit, 24/7, 47-year-old business and many of the entertainers he's seen and met on and beyond Broadway as more like friends than customers.

Sitting at the VIP booth of what he and his dad always referred to as "the steak house," the now-company president is surrounded by photos of himself or his dad, arm-in-arm with stars. Joan Rivers. Cher. A Cher impersonator. Jessica Simpson.

"I have a very good rapport with the stars, because I'm not like a TMZ, where I sit there and gossip and all that stuff," he said. "When I'm in there [with celebs], I'm not just a fan, I'm a friend."

Sisters act

Having come face-to-face with Drew Lachey, Frenchie Davis and Joey Fatone, he wasn't expecting much when a friend brought him to "Cooking with the Calamari Sisters" at Society Hill Playhouse last year. But the production surprised him.

"I just fell in love with the show," he said. "It was cute, perky, sassy - something different. It had comedy. It had improv. It had cooking segments where they actually feed the audience, and audience participation, and, most of all, just laughter. It hit all the elements."

Vento liked it so much, he went back with a big group. Afterward, he bought an apron printed with the image of the statue of David from show director Dan Lavender. They got to talking. Lavender invited him back yet again, and this time brought him backstage.

From there, "It was just kinda like a snowball effect," Vento said. "I was like, 'I need something to do, besides the steak house. I wanna keep busy. I wanna get into theater. I wanna get back into producing.' "

(He'd previously produced local stand-up comedy fundraisers with pals from Comedy Central.)

So, he stayed in touch. He helped put on "Christmas with the Calamari Sisters" in December in Pitman, N.J., and signed on to sponsor the Calamaris' kitschy new show, on an extended run, playing to audiences of 300 to 400 in the Independence Seaport Museum's 500-seat theater.

"The amount of the support [the show] is getting from Philly is the best out of all of them," he said.

On his own

Vento's role in the show's success seems like just another of his recent accomplishments.

Having lost both his parents within a year and a half of each other, Joey and Eileen's only child has since undergone silicone lap-band surgery, taken up exercise, changed his diet, lost 92 pounds, gotten a knee replacement and enrolled full time at the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College, where, like Tony Luke Jr. and Frank Olivieri Jr., he's seeking his college degree and culinary cred.

Another change for the son of a steak legend?

He's become increasingly candid about being gay. He's long been out to his family and friends. He came out to his parents at age 18. At first, the Ventos "didn't approve, totally," he said.

"They thought [being gay] was all drinking and drugs and partying and sex, but when they saw me and my best friend," since age 14, a guy he calls, "my brother," "it just changed their mentality, kind of thing," he said.

When Geno wanted to donate to AIDS charities, his parents, even Joey - an outspoken champion of several right-wing issues, stemming from his "This is America. Please speak English" sign in the steak-shop window - supported him.

"I never hid who I was," Geno said. "I never acted like [switching to a deep voice], 'Hey guys, how ya doin'? F-in' A.' "

"But the thing is, I never threw it in people's faces. Like, I don't believe the young kids' saying, 'I'm here. I'm queer. I'm gay,' or whatever it is," he added.

Instead, he prefers to work behind the scenes. Last Saturday, he spoke about his experiences to LGBT youth after a Philadelphia Gay Men's Chorus musicale, "When I Knew." (He also donated cheesesteaks for the gathering.) That evening, he was in the back at the Playhouse, perfecting the Calamari Sisters' costumes and craziness.

It's all part of Geno Vento discovering and doing what he loves, becoming his own man. "What came easy to my dad at the steak house is now coming easy to me, with the show," he said.


"The Calamari Sisters' Big, Fat, Italian Wedding" is on extended run (through May 4) at Penn's Landing Playhouse, Independence Seaport Museum, 211 S. Columbus Blvd., show times vary, $45-$55 (group discounts available), 855-448-7469, plplayhouse.com.


On Twitter: @LaMcCutch

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