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Eatery owner who once told customers to order in English dies

By Stephanie Gallman, CNN
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2006: Only order in English
  • Joey Vento has a heart attack at home and dies on the way to the hospital
  • He made headlines in 2006 when he posted a sign urging his customers to speak English
  • "Things are a little somber tonight," his nephew says
  • Vento founded Geno's in 1966 in Philadelphia

Read more about this story from CNN affiliate KYW.

(CNN) -- The owner of a south Philadelphia cheesesteak shop who once instructed customers to order only in English has died, according to relatives.

Joey Vento had a heart attack at home and died Tuesday on the way to the hospital, said Joseph Perno, his nephew and manager of the shop.

"Things are a little somber tonight," Perno told CNN affiliate KYW behind the grill at Geno's. "But he's in our hearts."

Vento founded Geno's in 1966 in Philadelphia, where it sits across the street from another cheesesteak shop, Pat's King of Steaks.

Pat's claims to have invented the cheesesteak in 1933, but both stores welcome a plethora of visitors to the city of brotherly love each year, and serve the popular steak sandwiches 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

For more than 40 years, the rivals have been engaged in a friendly competition over who makes the city's best cheesesteak.

Geno's became a popular stop for presidential candidates on the campaign trail and a photo gallery on the restaurant's website shows employees posing with celebrities such as Oprah, Shaquille O'Neal and Ray Romano.

Vento made national headlines in 2006 when he posted a sign on one of his restaurant's windows that read, "This is America. When ordering, please speak English."

The sign prompted the Philadelphia commission on human relations to file a discrimination suit.

Vento said he was using "common sense" by expecting Americans to speak English at his establishment, and refused to take down the sign. Two years after the controversy began, the suit was overturned.

Since his death, fans are using Twitter and Facebook to leave messages.

"Joey Vento was a true American patriot," one message read.

Others paid tribute to his famed sandwiches.

"Thank you for making the world just a little bit better by being here. Now heaven will have the best cheesesteaks in the world!! RIP Joey"