Family members confirm to Action News that 71-year-old Geno's Steaks owner Joey Vento has died of a massive heart attack on the way to the hospital.
His family said Vento had recently undergone successful surgery for colon/rectal cancer after being diagnosed last year and was continuing to come to work just about every day at 4:00 a.m.
This made the news of his death shocking to his family and his staff.
"We got word over the phone...you just feel it, everybody's heart just dropped," employee Joe Skats said.
Vento's nephew Joseph Perno, a manager at Geno's Steaks, told The Associated Press that family members had just gotten out of the hospital and wouldn't be making any immediate statements.
Vento opened Geno's Steaks back in 1966, specializing in cheesesteaks which had become a signature dish for Philadelphia.
According to Geno's website, Vento learned the cheesesteak business from his father, who had opened Jim's Steaks in the early 1940s. The site says Vento opened Geno's "with $6 in his pocket, two boxes of steaks and some hot dogs."
He came up with the name after seeing a broken door in the back of his store upon which a neighborhood boy named Gino had painted his name, and he changed it to Geno's to not conflict with a food chain of the era, the site says. The south Philadelphia location, however, was a given, because "he figured that if he was going to sell a steak, he had to be where they were already eating them."
Geno's and its chief rival across the street, Pat's King of Steaks, have become the focus of an area described as "ground zero for cheesesteaks," a traditionally Italian community that has grown more diverse with an influx of immigrants from Asia and Latin America and is a popular tourist destination.
The walls, roof, and interior of Geno's are decorated with hundreds of autographed and framed photos of celebrities who have eaten at the cheesesteak stand.
Vento was beloved by man, but he was also a controversial figure.
In June 2006, Vento and Geno's made headlines over two small signs posted at the shop stating, "This is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING `PLEASE SPEAK ENGLISH."'
Vento said he posted the signs because of concerns over the debate on immigration reform and the increasing number of people who couldn't order in English.
Vento said he never refused service to anyone because he or she couldn't speak English, but critics argued that the signs discouraged customers of certain backgrounds from eating at the shop.
Amid extensive publicity, the city's Commission on Human Relations began looking into whether Vento was violating Philadelphia's ordinance banning discrimination in employment, public accommodation and housing on the basis of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. The following year, the commission found probable cause against Geno's for discrimination.
The case then went to a public hearing, at which an attorney for the commission argued that the signs were about intimidation, not political speech. The matter then went to a three-member panel, which ruled 2-1 in March 2008 that the signs didn't violate the ordinance.
Vento has since been active in Tea Party politics. He was recently in Iowa for the Republican Iowa Caucus and has received a number of awards from the Tea Party.
The Independence Tea Party said in a statement that "Joey Vento was and will always be an inspiration to the cause of freedom and liberty."
He's also had a number of fundraisers for police officers killed in the line of duty.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter issued a statement on the passing of Vento.
"Joey Vento was a colorful, larger than life Philadelphian who loved his city and excelled as a businessman. Mr. Vento had strongly held views that were matched by a commendable desire to give back to his community," Nutter said.
On Tuesday night, customers flocked to Geno's after hearing about his passing.
"It's a very sad for the people of Philadelphia; he was very well-liked, very well known...and it's a shame to see him die so young," Kathleen Zarr of Somerdale, New Jersey said.
"I love him, I love him as a good friend," Dave Bradshaw of North Philadelphia said.
"My heart goes out to him and his family and God bless him," Carl Cutler of North Philadelphia said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.