Imagine spending your whole life, from childhood, fighting temptation inside what one might describe as the belly of the beast.
"I mean, I basically grew up eat, drink and sleep Geno's," says 42-year-old Geno Vento, owner and namesake of the iconic South Philly steak shop.
He is living proof that sometimes less is more. After a lifetime of being overweight, even ballooning to 360 pounds a few years ago, Geno Vento has become a much thinner, happier cheesesteak impresario. This is the story of how it happened. It's a tale one part family tragedy, one part surgical intervention and one part willpower.
A childhood surrounded by calories
On the other side of the bright neon signage and order and pickup windows of Geno's Steaks, thin slices of rib-eye meat and onions sizzle on flat metal grills, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The sandwiches can contain upwards of a thousand calories. Each. Cheese fries, another Geno's staple, may have more than 700 calories, plus nearly 50 grams of fat.
For Vento, who's worked at the restaurant since his late teens, a balanced diet and weight have long been a struggle. A self-described yo-yo dieter, he's tried all sorts of fads, but could never seem to shed pounds for more than "23 minutes at a time."
Geno Vento's dad, Joey Vento, started Geno's Steaks in 1966, across from another iconic South Philly steak shop, Pat's. Geno Vento was born a few years later, so it was he who was named after the landmark restaurant, not the other way around.
The restaurant consumed the family, with dad working around the clock.
"I used to have grabs of fries, grabs of cheese wiz, role up a piece of steak with some cheese. I was the biggest snacker, emotional eater," says Vento. "If a customer got on my nerves, workers, or dad or whatever, I would constantly eat or I would have my little hiding stashes."
Vento is 5 foot 8 inches tall, but he long weighed over 300 pounds.
"I would say I was an oversized gala apple, you know I was just rounded everywhere," says Vento. "Being overweight, you tend to shy away from who you are because you're basically vulnerable."
On first acquaintance, you might not pick up that fact about Vento. He jokes a lot. He's often in the public eye, brushing shoulders with celebrities like Justin Timberlake. His mom, who died last year, was his best friend, and a constant support. But she would often console him growing up with, well, food. It was a classic Italian household, Geno says, and cookies and other treats were never in short supply.
Dad, meanwhile, had trouble relating, and couldn't understand why his son didn't just stop eating so much. All the while Geno's weight made it hard to do even basic tasks.
"Things you would take for granted, putting on your shoes, getting dressed, walking to the car, actually breathing," he says.
A painful bolt of lightning
The problems all culminated Aug. 23, 2011. His dad had a massive heart attack and died unexpectedly. Joey Vento was a larger-than-life Philadelphian, as the mayor put it, and a bit controversial. Now, literally overnight, Geno Vento had an empire dumped on him.
"I mean, to step into Joey Vento's shoes, anybody else's shoes I would jump into, but his? No," he recalls.
Vento says his weight spiraled even more out of control, coping with the loss and the stress of managing the business. He had borderline diabetes, sleep apnea, and weighed his highest: 360 pounds. He also realized his own fate wouldn't end well if he continued down this path.
"Maybe it was a wakeup call when dad did die, going, 'You know, what if I could be next?"
Vento decided to look into medical options.
"I mean with any surgery there's risks, I mean like with everything, but I knew this was my last resort," he recalls. "If this didn't work I didn't know what I would do."
Surgery, with a side of questions
On Oct. 28, 2012, Vento underwent lap band surgery, joining the estimated 200,000 Americans who undergo some form of bariatric surgery each year.
A lap band is essentially when a doctor restrains the stomach with a silicone band, allowing only small amounts of foot to be consumed in one sitting. It's adjustable and can be taken out. If you eat too much, or too fast, you wind up "dumping," or throwing up.
Research questions the long-term success of patients being able to keep weight off after lap band surgery. It's gradual and limited, though reversable. The surgery's popularity has dropped significantly in recent years, with at least one area bariatric center dropping the procedure altogether. But Vento sees the band as a Band-aid of sorts, one that has spurred much bigger lifestyle changes.
Since the surgery, he has hit the gym daily, swimming hundreds of laps a week. He has two trainers, who work with him on cardio and strength training.
He had a minor setback. He needed a knee replacement, in part because of all the strain from his weight. He's been in a rehab program at Moss Rehab since January, where he goes three hours a day, five days a week.
"It's intensive," says Mary Clare Schafer, an orthopedic coordinator there who works with Vento. "Geno has been phenomenal."
Since his lap band surgery, Vento has lost nearly 100 pounds, well beyond what the band alone should have done for him. He wants to lose 25 more.
Could he have done it without the surgery?
"I probably coul. It's not a cure all, but it just helps you make better choices," says Vento. "If I want to lose any more weight, it's diet and exercise and on my own."
A continuing struggle
Vento says he feels fantastic, and thinks his parents would be proud, "seeing me happy, especially after seeing what a struggle it was, especially my mom."
But that struggle isn't completely over. Vento doesn't think it ever will be. He says maintaining his weight requires constant discipline and setting small goals. It can be an emotional roller coaster, as even now he sometimes feels like he's still at his heaviest, until he's reminded when buying new clothes that he can fit into smaller sizes.
And while Vento's diet has changed dramatically, he has no plans to completely remove the food he loves.
"Do we want to eat cheesesteaks every day? No. Do we want to eat cheese fries? Well..." he pauses, laughing. "Everything in moderation."
Recalling a mantra once picked up while in weightwatchers, he adds, "the first bite is as good as the last."
The next culinary adventure
At least for now, Vento may also be gaining a bit more distance from those cheesy Geno's temptations. This week, he started culinary school. One of his interests is pursuing alternative, healthy cooking. He has a few ideas.
"You know what, instead of having American cheese, do maybe a low fat cheese, or do like a cheese sauce and make it with a low fat milk...so instead of maybe a thousand calories, it would be 750."
So could these things make their way to Geno's?
"You never know," Vento says, smiling. "After school, you never know, there might be a new menu."
Either way, Vento says there will always be a place for Geno's and a good old fashioned, juicy Philly cheesesteak.