Vento steaks his claim: Sign isn't discriminatory
By WILLIAM BENDER
Philadelphia Daily News
IT DOESN'T take a six-hour public hearing like yesterday's to know that Geno's Steaks owner Joey Vento and the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission have different approaches to dealing with the city's immigrants.
The commission, which enforces civil-rights laws and mediates inter-group disputes, distributes pamphlets that ask, "Are you a victim of discrimination?" - in seven languages.
Vento earns most of his cash selling one thing - cheesesteaks - and he wants you to order in one language.
"This is America. When ordering, please speak English."
That's what the sign says at Vento's South Philly sandwich shop on 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue.
But is there anything wrong with "The Sign"? Specifically, does it violate the city's Fair Practices Ordinance by discriminating against immigrants and non-English speakers who frequent Vento's business?
That question wasn't answered yesterday at the Arch Street Meeting House, where a three-person panel heard more than six hours of testimony from witnesses for the HRC, which wants the sign removed, and Vento, who refuses to comply.
A ruling won't come for at least a couple of months, said Joseph Centeno, who chaired yesterday's hearing panel. The panel will make a recommendation to the full commission, but the parties have about 60 days to file post-hearing briefs.
Vento, sporting a black leather jacket and lots of bling, showed up yesterday ready for battle, with his Atlanta-based legal team and dozens of supporters at his side. The sign, he said, posted more than two years ago, is designed to make a political statement and keep the line moving at the world-famous Geno's Steaks.
When Vento was called to testify, the 68-year-old grandson of Italian immigrants started paraphrasing Theodore Roosevelt so quickly that the court reporter had to ask him to slow down.
"To be an American, you have to be American and nothing else. For if you say you're something else, then you're not a true American," Vento said, drawing on the words of the 26th president.
"I'm an American of Italian descent," he said. "I'm not an Italian-American."
More than 100 people attended the hearing, which had a trial-like atmosphere and ran so late that the staff of the historic meeting house wanted to close the place down.
There were pro-immigration groups, Vento loyalists and even some tears from one of his attorneys during the closing arguments - all over a 4-inch-by-9-inch bumper sticker that asks customers to order their food in English.
Paul Hummer, the attorney prosecuting the complaint against Vento on behalf of the HRC, said the sign "discriminates on the basis of national origin because national origin and language are linked."
Hummer drew parallels between Vento's English-only policy and the Jim Crow era in the segregated South. He argued that it violates the section of the city's Fair Practices Ordinance that prohibits places of public accommodation from withholding services based on race, color, ancestry and other classifications.
"Philadelphia is better than this," said Regan Cooper of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. "We can and should live up to our ideals as the City of Brotherly Love."
Another sign at Geno's that says employees have the right to refuse service to any customer, but Vento said it has been there for about 20 years and is not related to the speak-English sign. He testified that he has never turned anyone away because he couldn't order in English."Nobody goes away without a sandwich," Vento said.
"Do you think I'm stupid? I built the business from six dollars into a multimillion-dollar business . . . And you're gonna tell me I'm refusing service to people and I'm that successful?" he asked. "Well, if I am, I'm a very lucky guy and I should be on a plane to Las Vegas 'cause I'll probably break Las Vegas with this kinda luck."
Hummer countered that the sign "implies" that you can't get a cheesesteak there if you can't speak English, and is therefore discriminatory.
Meanwhile, Vento's business has been "phenomenal" since the controversy erupted last year, he said.
Vento, who still works the early-morning shift at his shop, has become an unlikely authority in the national immigration debate and probably the only cheesesteak vendor in the country whose presidential endorsement carries any weight. (He's backing Republican Rudy Giuliani, who visited Geno's in October.)
But, Vento said, he still doesn't understand all the fuss.
"The people that are protesting, I don't know where they're coming from," he said. "I'm not asking anybody to recite the Declaration of Independence." *