Image: Joey Vento
Getty Images file
Joey Vento, owner of Geno's Steaks grabbed headlines in 2006 when he posted signs that said "This is America: When ordering 'speak English.'"
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updated 8/23/2011 10:27:01 PM ET 2011-08-24T02:27:01

Joey Vento, owner of a landmark south Philadelphia cheesesteak stand who once told customers to order in English, has died. He was 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.

Perno said family members had just gotten out of the hospital and would not be making any immediate statements.

In November, Perno said Vento had been diagnosed with colon/rectal cancer a few months earlier and was to have surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.

Longtime friend Domenic Chiavaroli, 65, told the Philadelphia Daily News that Vento had been at the shop that 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," he 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, and 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 in order not to conflict with a food chain of the era, according to the site. The south Philadelphia location, however, was a given, since "he figured that if he was going to sell a steak, he had to be where they were already eating them."

Image: Geno's Steaks sign
Matt Rourke  /  AP File
A sign telling customers they must order in English graces the counter, June 7, 2006, at Geno's Steaks in Philadelphia.

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.

In June 2006, Vento and Geno's made headlines over two small signs posted at the shop stating, "This is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING 'SPEAK ENGLISH.'" Vento said he posted the signs due to 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 they couldn't speak English, but critics argued that the signs discouraged customers of certain backgrounds from eating at the shop.

Video: No English, no cheese steak (June 20, 2006) (on this page)

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, alleging that the policy discouraged customers of certain backgrounds from eating there.

The case then went to a public hearing, where an attorney for the commission argued that the sign was about intimidation, not political speech. The matter then went to the three-member panel, which ruled 2-1 in March 2008 that the signs did not violate the ordinance.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: No English, no cheese steak

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