We Want Answers: Geno Vento, Cheesesteak Heir

Geno Vento on his fiery father, losing 100 pounds, and the occasional visit from Justin Timberlake.

Photograph by Claudia Gavin

Photograph by Claudia Gavin

It’s been nearly four years since your father, Joey Vento, died. What’s the one thing you wish people knew about you and your dad? Dad was a little more boisterous than me. But you know, I’m getting in his shoes and getting a little more boisterous.

I don’t get the sense that scrappiness is quite as much in your nature. I don’t know if he was argumentative — he was talkative and funny. I’m very approachable, down-to-earth, love to joke and make people laugh. The Philly experience — to be part of that is very honorable. Dad started in ’66 with six dollars. He borrowed $2,000 off my grandfather and turned it into the multimillion-dollar business you see.

His influence is still around. I understand you still have the “Speak English” sticker? Yeah, it’s still in the window. That was his legacy and his thing, and I’m honoring him by keeping it up.

Are you going to take any big political stands? No, I won’t. I’m just not a real political person.

You lost more than a hundred pounds about a year ago. Is the weight staying off? Yeah, actually it’s about 107 pounds. I’m at the gym, everything’s in moderation, maintaining, exercising and eating right. Every once in a while I have to go for a cheesesteak. I have to get my fix in.

You have a famous rivalry with Pat’s — There’s a place across the street?

That’s what I hear. But you guys are actually pretty friendly. Yeah, Frank [Olivieri Jr., the owner] is a good friend of mine. We talk all the time. I’m really good friends with his sister Danielle. You know, we’re both here to make money, we both have cheesesteaks, a great product. People like me, people like them. There are no hard feelings. People go crazy when they see me talking to Frankie or giving him a hug. They’re like, “Oh my God, you guys talk?” Yeah, we grew up together. He used to call my dad “Dad” as a joke: “Dad, where’s my allowance?” “Dad, I’m here to work.”

Who’s your favorite celebrity that you’ve had there? I would say hands down Joan Rivers. I would say Michael Bublé, Vince Vaughn —

Michael Bublé doesn’t strike me as a cheesesteak guy. His nickname for me is “Steaky.” And Justin Timberlake, back when *NSYNC was together, he used to come here as a pit stop before or after a show. About a month and a half ago he was here, and he ordered 50 cheesesteaks on his way out to his next city.

The Italian Market Festival is this month. People worry that the spirit of the old Italian Market is going away. No. I mean, they have new traditions coming in. Back when I was a kid, there were people in there that were 60, 70, 80 years old cutting the meat, doing the butchering. For the most part, generations of kids took it over. But some of them closed shop, and other people came in and put different restaurants and specialty stores in. I think it makes us diverse.

Why did you choose to stay? I enjoyed it. Working with Dad was definitely a challenge. He was like a dictator — there was no democracy. Being his son didn’t give me any leverage or extra points. But he taught me: With hard work, dedication and sacrifice, this is what you get in life. I’m very fortunate and very thankful for what I have.

Final question: What’s the best way to have a cheesesteak? Hands down, wiz with.

Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.