By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Joey Vento, owner of the Philadelphia cheese steak mecca Geno's Steaks, has died of a heart attack at age 71, the manager of his restaurant said on Wednesday.
Vento, who was the proprietor of one of the city's biggest tourist attractions after the Liberty Bell and Museum of Art steps where Sylvester Stallone played Rocky, died at his home in Medford, New Jersey, on Tuesday night.
Since 1966, the neon signs and orange trim of Geno's have stood in marked contrast to its chief competitor, the more demure and older Pat's King of Steaks, a mere 50 yards away.
On Wednesday, customers piled flowers in remembrance of Vento inside and outside of the steakhouse, Geno's manager Jimmy Reds said.
A visit to a cheese steak house ranks on nearly all the lists of top 10 tourist stops in Philadelphia, according to Meryl Levitz, head of the city's Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.
"It's a destination, it's just fun," she said in an interview on Wednesday.
Cheese steaks are sliced rib eye sandwiches typically topped with Provolone cheese, although sometimes with Cheez Whiz or American cheese. Onions, mushrooms and peppers, hot or sweet, are part of the mix too.
As famous as Vento and his sandwiches were in Philadelphia, he sparked controversy in 2005 when he put up signs telling customers, "This is America. When ordering please speak English."
At the time, the once solidly Italian-American neighborhood of South Philadelphia was becoming a mix of Italian, Latino and Asian residents and businesses.
A city official filed a complaint with the city's human relations agency, contending that Vento's signs were discriminatory. Eventually, the Human Relations Commission found no fault with the signs.
In a speech in Harrisburg, Vento called the arrival of Latinos to America "an illegal invasion." He went on to say his ancestors, from Italy, had to learn how to speak English to succeed, and other immigrants should too.
Vento's funeral is planned for Saturday in South Philadelphia.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Cynthia Johnston)