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Last Updated: Sunday, 2 July 2006, 11:27 GMT 12:27 UK
Philly landmark goes English-only
By Jamie Coomarasamy
BBC News, Philadelphia

Geno's Philly cheese steak stall is a mecca for lovers of Philadelphia's trademark dish of steak, onions and processed cheese, all wrapped in a bun.

Joey Vento (Photo courtesy of Geno's Steaks)
Facing threat of legal action, Joey Vento says: "Bring it on!"
But now it is more than a culinary landmark thanks to owner Joey Vento placing a sign in the window saying: "This is America, please order In English."

Mr Vento's establishment has got nationwide attention at a time when knowledge of the English language is a sensitive topic in America's debate over immigration reform.

He said it was not too much to ask that his customers speak English.

"The only thing the customer has to tell us is what kind of cheese he wants - Cheese Whiz, American or Provolone. It's as simple as that."

The proud grandson of Italian immigrants said all the fuss about his sign was a sign of the times.

"The American people are speaking out. They found a guy finally who said what he meant. I backed it up. I put my money where my mouth was.

"They threatened me with lawsuits - bring it on! The sign's not coming down.

"There's a possibility that your licence can be revoked and put you out of business. If that's the case, I'll board it up and you can have the ghetto neighbourhood you want."

'Do as South Philly does'

That is the sort of talk that seems to have struck a chord with his customers.

Clutching his sandwich of steak, onions and Provolone cheese - or, as they say here, Provolone wit - Dave Rodgers gave a pretty typical view.

Geno's Philly cheese steak (Photo courtesy of Geno's Steaks)
Geno's competitors help foreigners navigate the cheese steak
"This is America. We're a melting pot. The predominant language here is American," he said.

"If people want to come here, that's their choice - welcome to America - but they have to adopt the ways and means of people here.

"When in Rome do as the Romans do. In this case, it's America. Right now, it's South Philly."

But at Pat's, the rival steak stall just across the road, manager Tom Francona has a different philosophy.

"We serve everyone here," he said. "It doesn't matter if you speak English or any language. If you need help getting through a cheese steak order, we'll help you.

"This is a multicultural neighbourhood now. We have a range of different people now. We have to teach them. We can teach them to say cheese steak."

'Sign up, profits up'

This part of town may be called Italian Market, but these days it is filled with Korean and Mexican stores - such as El Pueblo, just a couple of blocks from Geno's.

Shopkeeper Flora is not impressed by the sign at Geno's.

"I think it's ignorant," she said. "They came from immigrants. I think we'd like to hear someone in authority telling them to take it down."

Geno's Steaks (Photo courtesy of Geno's Steaks)
Joey Vento's restaurant is a Philadelphia landmark
But that is unlikely to happen.

Geno's neon facade has pride of place on many of Philadelphia's tourist websites - it is as much a symbol of this city as the Liberty Bell or the soul-and-funk Philly sound.

Tom Muldoon is president of the Philadelphia Visitors' and Convention Bureau.

He is not happy about what the controversy over Geno's sign is doing to the image of Philadelphia as a friendly and multicultural city.

But in the end, he said it is just owner Joey Vento being Joey - a man who, he says, went to "the Madonna school of public relations".

"He's paying the dues and it's not against the law," he said.

He said he wanted Joey Vento to take the sign down, but did not think it would happen.

"No, no, no. As long as his profits keep going up, up, up, I think the sign will stay."

Here's a selection of your comments

Frankly, Ive never heard any bilingual person express the views of Mr. Vento. When I arrived in France 4 months ago I only spoke a little French; after 4 months of study & practice I still struggle with the language, and this is normal. It generally takes an adult about 2 years to become really fluent in a second language. Why are so many Americans intolerant?

Thomas, Montpellier, France

I am quadrilingual, and learning 3 more languages by next year just because I love languages and different cultures. Growing up here, I learned many are intolerant of music they cant understand and people talking in foreign languages and that because we're in America, we should speak English. On the other hand, in his case he should just do it like the Japanese: make fake plastic versions of everything and let them all point to whatever they want so that the barrier is obsolete.

Margarita, Florida, USA

Yes, America is a melting pot. I take great pride in the fact that the American population represents numerous cultures around the world. However, as with any country, central culture and infrastructure is necessary to maintain proper flow and order. A primary example of this is language. Since the majority of American citizens speak English, it makes sense to use this as the official language. Requiring citizens and visitors to utilize one language I believe is in no way demeaning to other cultures or languages. It is simply a means of maintaining order.

Kate, Sacramento, CA, United States

Why is this making such news. Geno's is in South Philly. Has anyone been in South Philly? They don't speak "English" themselves. Hey even in Philly we have different dialects of English. We also have places that sell cheesesteaks other than overrated Genos. I am from Philly and I had a cheesesteak from there once. Not the best in my opinion.

Ayanna, Lowell, MA

Americans are intolerant? Hardly. There are many who live here who never even bother to learn English. That's the thing that gets people fired up. When I was in school I had kids from dozens of different countries here. Some taught me their language as I helped them understand ours. Some simply didn't care to learn anything. That's what bothers some people.

Ed L., Philly, PA

Hoorah for Joey Vento. It's a pity there are not more like him. I have a friend whose son lost his job because he does not speak Spanish - and this is America. If immigrants to this country can't be bothered to learn the language of the country in which they live, then don't come here. I recently spent 3 months working in New York City, where I found English to be a minority language on the subway, and there were more Spanish-speaking TV channels than English. It was an awakening.

Gordon Clifford, Andover, NY, USA

Mr. Vento is a embarrassment to Philadelphia. When William Penn founded his colony in 1681 he intended it as a place of welcome and tolerance for everyone, and that is just what it has continued to be. Mr. Vento is himself a descendant of immigrants and it is quite possible that his own grandmother couldn't order in English. Unfortunately he is also an example of the sort of immigrant who comes to America, takes advantage of it's opportunities and then rails against others, new-comers, trying to follow the same dream. Mr. Vento, please, do Philadelphia a favour and go back to Italy. As for everyone else, EAT AT PAT'S (the sandwiches are better anyway!)

Sebastian, Philadelphia, PA, United States

The sign is a bit self-defeating: how would patrons know to order in English... if they can't read English? In all seriousness, businesses have a right to form their own policies (if legal). It's the consumers' right to take their business to other establishments if those policies aren't liked.

Joe, Concord, USA

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