Billy Penn: Geno’s Steaks opening second location at Xfinity Live
Geno’s Steaks is opening a second location at Xfinity Live, the entertainment hub inside the South Philly sports complex.
Outfitted with a giant neon sign and orange and white tiling reminiscent of the original, the Geno’s cheesesteak counter will be just off the Pattison Avenue entrance to the “Philly MarketPlace” central courtyard, right next to the Victory Beer Hall.
The menu will be simple: cheesesteaks with choice of Whiz, American or provolone, with or without onions. All ingredients, from the daily-sliced rib-eye to the Liscio’s rolls made to custom Geno’s Steaks specifications, will be exactly the same as at the primary location, as will prices ($10 per sandwich). Drinks will include Geno’s branded water bottles and Geno’s logo’d cups to use at the MarketPlace soda fountains.
Opening is targeted for Sept. 20, the date of the Eagles’ first home game of the regular NFL season — against longtime rivals Dallas Cowboys.
“[The Xfinity Live folks] came to me, they asked me,” said Geno Vento, second-generation owner of the shop his father founded in 1966, explaining how the deal went down. “We met with three of the high bosses in the company and all of them were like, ‘We love Geno’s, whatever you want, let’s make it happen.’”
Now in its third year in business, Xfinity Live is undergoing a $6 million renovation and expansion, as reported by Philly.com earlier this summer, which also includes a new restaurant called 1100 Social from chef Jason Cichonski (Ela, The Gaslight, Top Chef New Orleans).
‘A household name’
The Xfinity Live counter will be the first franchise location for the iconic sandwich joint, which makes up one half of Philadelphia’s famous “Cheesesteak Vegas” intersection at Ninth and Passyunk, across from Pat’s King of Steaks. But it won’t be the last.
Geno Vento, 44, assumed ownership when his father, Joey Vento, died in August 2011. Over the past four years, he’s been figuring out how to slowly modernize the brand while keeping in place long-established traditions.
After graduating with honors from the accelerated culinary program at Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College this past June, he’s now ready to take Geno’s Steaks to the next level.
He’s in various stages of planning for a couple of other locations — “You might see us in an airport soon, you might see us in Vegas” — but is adamant that he does not want to dilute the Geno’s reputation: “I’d rather have three solid places than 30 mediocre ones.”
“I want to make Geno’s a part of history, a part of culture. I want Geno’s to be a household name,” Vento, who was named after the steak shop, said in an interview.
Moving beyond rivalries (and racism)
Although the rivalry between Geno’s Steaks and its neighbor Pat’s is legendary, it’s more myth than actual beef. While the sandwiches served at each 24/7 joint are notably different — meat grilled flat at Geno’s, chopped fine at Pat’s — the owners are now good friends.
“Me, Frankie [Olivieri, owner of Pat’s] and Tony [Luke Jr., of Tony Luke’s] all live in the same building! We’re friends, we hang out,” said Vento, who also noted Tony Luke Jr. had even offered to sit in on franchise licensing meetings and provide advice.
Geno’s in its second generation is a kinder, gentler organization.
The sign asking customers to “please speak English” when ordering, which caused some infamy and outrage, is still in hanging in the front window — but only because it was Joey Vento’s dying wish.
“My dad had his views, and I have mine. He wanted to go up, I wanted to go down. He wanted to go right, I wanted to go left,” said Geno, noting that no customers were ever actually turned away, no matter what language they spoke.
“There’s always going to be gossip and talk about his politics, but that was really him playing a character. Underneath it, he was actually a good person.”
Vento has continued and expanded the charity work his father started. He’s very involved in the veterans service organization Wounded Warrior Project and is on the board of nonprofit cancer treatment and research center City of Hope. He recently traveled to California to meet with scientists and doctors working on a new treatment that could replace chemo and greatly improve quality of life for cancer and AIDS patients.
“The easiest thing to do is just write a check, but I like to know where the money’s going, and really get involved,” he explained.
A Sexy Single
Vento has never been one to shy from the spotlight. He’s a big supporter of the arts, and has run several theater productions, including comic musicals by the Calamari Sisters. He’s been on TV several times, cooking cheesesteaks with Bobby Flay on the Food Network and even making an appearance on Wheel of Fortune with Vanna White.
He was also on a show called Extreme Weight Loss — he dropped more than 100 lbs, and has been successful in keeping it off, using exercise and moderation to maintain his new figure.
Affirmation came this week, when Philadelphia Daily News named him one of their 2015 Sexy Singles.
“I’m so honored and excited to possibly meet the man of my dreams,” said Vento, who came out to his parents when he was 18 and has never hidden that he was gay.
“I don’t act outrageous — I didn’t come out of a cake spitting glitter everywhere. It’s getting more and more relaxed, but always was who I was. I’m Geno, I’m no different from anybody else.”
Published: November 19, 2015