For Geno Vento, namesake of Philadelphia's iconic cheesesteak shop and the son of its owner, it's never been about a sign.
And so, a few weeks ago, Geno, who took over his father's steak shop at 9th and Passyunk in South Philly when Joey Vento died of a heart attack, unceremoniously removed what may be the shop's second most talked about item (after the cheesesteak, of course): a sign that hung for about a decade in the front window of the shop proclaiming, "This is America. When ordering, please speak English."
When his father put up the sign about 10 years ago, it sparked a massive firestorm, grabbing national headlines and focusing criticism on Joey Vento, the outspoken steak shop owner who opened the shop in 1966 with $6 in his pocket and a $2,000 loan from his father-in-law, for his views.
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But now, five years after his father passed away, Geno Vento wants to set the record straight. In an exclusive interview with NBC10's Keith Jones, Geno talked about why he finally decided to remove the controversial sign from the window at Geno's.
"It's not about a sign. It's about what you do and what your mark in life is, and I wanna change that mark in life," Geno told Jones, sitting across from him in the shop's construction-cone orange booth in front of a wall of famous people who've visited the shop over the years. "I wanna make Geno's Geno's Steaks different than what my father did. Not saying that was right or wrong, but that wasn't my vision, and I wanna take Geno's to the next level."
Philly's Iconic Geno's Steaks Goes Wit' Out Controversial Sign
Geno said the sign was taken down unceremoniously weeks ago. It was gone from the storefront before presidential candidate Donald Trump's visit to Geno's in September, he said.
And even though it was widely believed that his dad's dying wish was to see the sign stay forever, Geno says that's an urban legend as cooked-up as the rib-eye Geno's counter workers sling 24 hours a day.
His father, although outspoken, cared about people, Geno said.
"Dad is humanitarian. We do a lot of support with the community, the troops," he said. "He had a big mouth, but not a bad guy."
In a 2006 interview with NBC10 about the sign — at the height of the controversy — Joey Vento said he didn't intend to remove the sign, although Geno's never turned anybody away.
"We got troops that get blown up, and here we got this big, bad Joey Vento because he's got the audacity to try to teach people to speak English in America, where the language is English, and if you don't know it, you're not going anywhere," Vento said at the time in his gruff Philly twang. "The bottom line is, nobody's ever been refused."
Today, Geno said his vision for Geno's Steaks is to keep coming to work every day to put smiles on people's faces.
"We have all different kinds of customers from all walks of life, from janitors to presidents, come in here," he said. "I'm a people person. I serve everybody ... I'm here to make people happy, and believe it or not, being a cheesesteak in Philadelphia known all over the world. That's amazing."
He stressed that his dad, despite his big mouth, never intended any harm by hanging the sign.
"He basically was proud of America and being American, and that's the way he stood," Geno said, flashing his signature grin. "The way I do it is a little differently, you know? I like to hug."