Geno Vento, owner of Geno’s Steaks, discusses what it was like to grow up as the son of Joey Vento, the founder of Geno’s, and how he eventually came to take over the business after his father passed away. Geno shares what he most enjoys about his work, including the numerous charity events that he is involved with. He reveals what brings him the most joy in work and life and why he thinks his father would be pleased that he is partnering with Robert De Niro to bring the play A Bronx Tale to Broadway.
Speaker 1: Welcome to Hidden Human, the podcast where we explore the stories behind the business leader. Get ready to hear insights from business leaders, speaking candidly about how they became who they are today, and the lessons they learned along the way. And now, here’s your host, leadership coach and speaker, Kelly Meerbott.
Kelly Meerbott: Well, I am here with Geno from Gino’s Steaks, who is a national treasure and beloved in Philadelphia and I am just so excited that he’s here on Hidden Human. Welcome.
Geno Vento: Thank you, Kelly.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah. So for those of us who don’t know, which I’m sure are a very small percentage of the population, what is Geno’s Steaks?
Geno Vento: Basically it’s an institution that my dad started with six dollars. Borrowed two thousand dollars off my grandfather, and turned it into a multimillion dollar business with only a ninth grade education.
Kelly Meerbott: Isn’t that unbelievable?
Geno Vento: Yeah. He had two chances. They gave him slim and none.
Kelly Meerbott: Slim and none, yeah. I mean and your great grandparents are much like mine, Italian immigrants that came over from Italy and same thing-
Geno Vento: Hard-headed, bold. That’s the determination. My dad was always … If you were six foot, he was six one. If you said he couldn’t do it, he’s prove you wrong and do it. He had that mentality.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah, they have grit. And if you know Geno, he’s very … I think he’s very, very kind, but with a little bit of gritty edge. Is that accurate?
Geno Vento: Yeah.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah. Okay, so obviously, you grew up in this industry, right? So was it an assumption that you were going to just come and take over the business? Or was it something that you wanted to do?
Geno Vento: Totally. They thought I was going to totally take it over. And to me, growing up, work was a curse word. I didn’t like it. So I didn’t start at Geno’s until I was 17. I had tried other family friends, working with them, and doing odd stuff. After I graduated high school, dad gave me a really good offer at Geno University, and I went there. But it’s hard working with family, especially your father, ’cause not only did I get talked to at work, I got talked to in the car, talked to in the house, talked to on vacation. Everything was Geno, Geno, Geno. So growing up, I eat, slept, drank Geno’s.
Kelly Meerbott: Literally and figuratively.
Geno Vento: Yeah.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah. So let’s talk about your childhood a little bit. Is that okay?
Geno Vento: Okay, sure.
Kelly Meerbott: Great. So where were you born?
Geno Vento: I was born at Methodist Hospital, and we lived in Packer Park for almost a year. And then after that, we moved to Jersey, in Marlton. And I grew up there for a little bit. And then we had our house built in [inaudible 00:02:46], New Jersey.
Kelly Meerbott: So much like me, I’m sure, Italian Americans grow up in multi-generational homes. Was that true for you?
Geno Vento: No, it was just my parents.
Kelly Meerbott: It was just you and your parents.
Geno Vento: My mom’s mom lived there, and then my dad’s mom. We have people around the area, but not living or anything. And then when we lived in Jersey, it was just me and my mom and dad.
Kelly Meerbott: Gotcha. Okay. But you did have the influence of grandparents.
Geno Vento: Oh, yeah.
Kelly Meerbott: And so what was that like?
Geno Vento: My mom’s mom was … I was the baby of the cousins, so I was spoiled. I was the apple of her eye, so I could do no wrong.
Kelly Meerbott: That’s awesome. Who do you resonate with most in your family, outside of your mom and dad? So who was it that you were most … I don’t know, aligned with?
Geno Vento: Probably my aunt.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay.
Geno Vento: It’s my mom’s sister, so she was like my second mother. Was always taking care of me, always had her eye out for me, made sure that nobody took advantage of me, hurt me, that kind of thing. So she was a mother figure. And her and my mother were extremely tight. Extremely tight. So the bond was there.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah. And so what would you say … If you could go back to your childhood, between the ages of eight and 14, what would you say was a defining moment in your life that set you on the path for where you are now?
Geno Vento: I guess being Geno, Geno’s Steaks.
Kelly Meerbott: What do you mean by that?
Geno Vento: Just growing up in the business, and having expectations, and having drive and business at a young age, where most kids were playing and everything, my dad was showing me how to manage checkbooks and doing business and making a business deal. And your word is your word, it’s a bond, it’s a handshake, you don’t go against it, even if you make a mistake, you eat your mistake. Your word is your word. And I still, ’til this day, my handshake with somebody is better than a contract.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah. There’s so much integrity, and it’s not … I don’t think it’s just something that’s spoken, like you were talking about. It’s woven into people’s DNA, especially with-
Geno Vento: And plus with Dad, he was always a hardcore Italian steakhouse owner or whatever, when honestly, he was a big teddy bear.
Kelly Meerbott: Give me an example.
Geno Vento: We had our rough times, father and son working together and everything, but deep down inside, he did love me, but he had that … We were talking about generational, and back then, it was like, you had to be strong, you had to be doing this. If I didn’t tell you you were doing good, you should just know it. I don’t have to say I love you, and I don’t have to say you’re doing a good job. It’s just expected. Where I was the opposite, where I wanted to hear it, him saying I was doing good and all that stuff. So that was a little rough for me. But deep down inside, I knew he loved me, but it was just, he didn’t always show it or say it.
Kelly Meerbott: So give me an example of how he did show it.
Geno Vento: Just being at home, and doing stuff together. We’d have little family trips. Or I remember when I was a late teenager, we used to have … Every Thursday would be bowling night, where we would go out bowling or go to the mall, back when they had Tower Records and all that. And the sales guy would be laughing ’cause my dad would buy all these CDs and DVDs and have stacks of them, and he’s like, “I’ll take all of them,” and he was like, “Oh, okay.” We’d go out to dinner. My parents would go out to dinner. So I had a very amazing life, but on the other hand, I had things stripped from me that a normal person wouldn’t have.
Kelly Meerbott: Like what?
Geno Vento: Dad worked 24/7. He slept, ate, and drank the business. So when workers called out, or meeting … He was always on call. So when he would get up at 2:00, 3:00 in the morning, he’d come to work, he would leave … Usually around noon time, but to him, he never had a time clock. Whenever the work was done, he left. He would come home, have his coffee and crackers or read the magazine, the newspaper, stuff like that. Watch TV. We’d have dinner around 4:30, 5:00 at the latest, ’cause then he would get on the couch, go to sleep, relax, and then he’d get up and do the work again.
Geno Vento: And growing up, it was this limited on stuff that we did. He wasn’t really into the family stuff, ’cause me and Mom went to a lot of stuff ’cause he was always working. And he’d always tease my mom. He said, “If I’d known now what I did before, I would have had a [inaudible 00:07:28] kids,” and my mom said, “The hell you would.” ‘Cause I’m an only child. So he didn’t realize the steakhouse would taken off so much. But in a way, growing up, I wanted brothers and sisters, ’cause it was lonely. But then, when I got older, I was like, I like this, being the only child and this and that. But then if I want to have an argument or do something, I just look in the mirror. There’s not that … When parents die and they’re fighting over the business and the cars and this and that, I basically gave everything away. I didn’t want to be a part of it.
Geno Vento: So when my parents died, I had the house, I had all the family members come in, I put little Post-Its with a marker where everybody’s name, like Kelly, John, Sally. Had the movers come in, pick everything up, and delivered everything. So nobody could say nothing, house got delivered. I’m very amicable with just making things easy for people.
Geno Vento: But the worst thing in business is fighting over with money and family. It’s the biggest thing.
Kelly Meerbott: It changes people.
Geno Vento: And I’m like, money doesn’t drive me.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah, me either.
Geno Vento: ‘Cause we haven’t gotten into it, but we have had expansions, and I have four of them. And just this year alone, I got eight more that I got asked to do. And the bottom line is, is I appreciate everything I have. I have a blessed life. I have an amazing life. But really, if it wasn’t for the workers, I wouldn’t be who I was. And without them, I would be able to be doing podcast. I wouldn’t be able to do the charity events, or travel, or do whatever. So I’m very fortunate and very lucky. But the thing is, at the end of the day, my name’s worth more than a dollar sign. You can’t put a money amount on happiness, your life. And like I said, Dad started with six dollars, turned it into a multimillion dollar business. And when he passed away, all he got buried with was his spatula. He didn’t take anything with him.
Kelly Meerbott: Oh my gosh, I’m going to cry.
Geno Vento: So I want to live life. I want to be able to enjoy what path he gave me, and the opportunities with doing charities and working with … I just did Best Buddies, or Tastebuds, with the Buddy Program. I do the cancer, I do the Gay Men’s Chorus, I work with a kid that was paralyzed like Christopher Reeves, C6, C7 spinal cord injury. And within a little less than three years, he stood up and took his first step.
Kelly Meerbott: Oh my god.
Geno Vento: So stuff like that, that’s what I want to do and be able to change. And with the amount of connections I’m meeting, and different people, and meeting you, the amazing person you are. Everything is for a reason. And I believe when I meet people, it’s for a reason, or they’re coming in my life for a purpose.
Kelly Meerbott: I believe the same exact thing.
Geno Vento: And I’m just very fortunate, and I just thank God every day, ’cause for a while, I wasn’t like that. I had some dark sides. I was suicidal and overweight and all that stuff.
Kelly Meerbott: Do you mind exploring that a little bit?
Geno Vento: Yeah, sure.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay. So what brought you to that point?
Geno Vento: Just being, like I said, Geno of Geno’s Steaks. A lot of the pressure, dad, media. I was 360 pounds, very unhappy. Miserable. And I even made my workers miserable because I was miserable, I wanted everyone else around me to be … Why should people be happy around me? And just one day, I just turned … When dad died, I’m like, you know what, I gotta take care of my mom. She’s my life. She was the rock, the wind beneath my wings, my best friend.
Kelly Meerbott: What was her name?
Geno Vento: Eileen.
Kelly Meerbott: Eileen. Okay.
Geno Vento: To me, she was my princess. And over here, I have actually a tattoo, with the two wings with the heart, and it says, my light, my Geno. So we had a very tight bond, just like my mom and her sister. And we basically … I had to take care of her. And she was going through cancer and kidney failure. So we had dialysis, and doctors were great and everything, but they didn’t supply a wheelchair. She couldn’t get in and out of the car right, so I had to go out and get the car, get the wheelchair. And thank god I had the means to do it, because some people don’t. But I tried to make my mom’s life the best I could. I got her flowers every week, I got her cards, I used to surprise her with different things. Everybody has their own way of coping with it, and I was just covering with that and food. And for a while, I had an addiction to Cheez Whiz. We used to meet late at night, after work, in dark rooms.
Kelly Meerbott: Really?
Geno Vento: And my main gain was just snacking. Emotional eating. Because food is always there. It never lets you down, it makes you feel good, it puts a smile on your face. At least it does to me. I don’t know about you.
Kelly Meerbott: Oh my gosh. I’m Italian and my husband’s a chef, hello.
Geno Vento: So just between that. And just with everything going on in my life, I had to take control. I had … That was my rock bottom, is my mom. And I decided to get the sleeve surgery, and I took off over a 115 pounds. I put about 15, 20 back on, over five years, that was. And I’m still working on it, but you know what, I was so driven with my dad to be perfect, perfect, perfect. Life is not perfect. There’s a lot of side roads. But the thing is, if I stay on that road at the end of the journey, I’ll get there. It just may not be as fast as I want, it may take longer, it might take a little right turns, left turns. But eventually, I’m going to get to my happy place. And I finally found my happy place.
Geno Vento: And I lost the weight and started taking over when dad passed away, running the business. And I got to put my own mark. And we went from location to four locations. Then we went to a retail store. And then I got asked to partner up with Chazz Commentary and Robert DeNiro, with a movie called A Bronx Tale. And we brought it to the stage in New York with 20 other investors, so I’m one of the investors for the show. And it’s amazing. And the funny part is, Dad got asked to have a movie about him, and my dad always said, “There’s only one person I want him to play. Robert DeNiro, to play me.” And now, I’m working with Robert DeNiro.
Kelly Meerbott: On a movie to play your dad?
Geno Vento: No, he said if he ever did it, he wants Robert DeNiro to play himself-
Kelly Meerbott: And now you’re … It’s full circle, I got it.
Geno Vento: So that’s what I’m saying. Everything happens for a reason.
Kelly Meerbott: It really is. There’s something … I mean, I don’t know what-
Geno Vento: And I have a lot of blessings in life, but there was … A lot of people don’t realize there was a lot of dark sides to it. And being in the public eye. And people expecting and wanting and taking advantage, and just gaining from your successes. And a lot of people … My dad always said, it’s lonely on top, and it’s easy to get to where you are, but to stay there, and sustain it, is the hardest part. And I find, since he left … ‘Cause we will meet again at some point.
Kelly Meerbott: Of course.
Geno Vento: It’s amazing how people can judge you or make you feel bad or less of yourself just because they’re unhappy with their selves, and they want to bring you down. And for a while, I was feeding into it, and I was like, oh my god, why am I doing this? And really, I had to look at myself, and you know what, I can put my head on the pillow at night knowing that I help people, I have an amazing business, amazing workers, amazing friends. My health, I have. I feel like I’m doing pretty good. So I can put my head on the pillow at night and feel good about myself.
Kelly Meerbott: Well, you are beloved.
Geno Vento: Thank you.
Kelly Meerbott: And it’s … Geno and I haven’t known each other very long, but when we met, there was some kind of electricity-
Geno Vento: It’s a connection. Not saying it was over food or anything.
Kelly Meerbott: No, no, no. We just met and it was just … It felt like our souls had met before. And it’s so interesting that you bring up that fact about people trying to bring you down, because since May, I’ve had somebody kind of doing that to me. I’ve been rising, rising, rising, and all of a sudden, this person is just firing all this negativity at me. And for a while, I was buying into it, but then I had to pull myself up by my bootstraps and say, listen, I give back, I have a great business. Same situation.
Geno Vento: As long as you’re happy with yourself, that’s all that matters.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah. So you do so much for charity. You’re so generous. It was funny, ’cause I walked in today, and what’s your worker’s-
Geno Vento: Karen.
Kelly Meerbott: Karen let me in the back, the secret bowels of Geno’s Steaks on Ninth Street. And one of the things she said is she’s been here 44 years and she loves him. And you can tell when people are happy with their work, and obviously, Geno sets the tone, but what I want to know is, giving back is part of your DNA. When was the first time in your life when you started to do charity work? So go all the way back to childhood. ‘Cause it’s learned.
Geno Vento: I started at a young age. With Dad, he would help out a lot of people, and what a lot of people don’t know is we do a lot of stuff behind the scenes. We don’t want to be on the news and getting publicity. I mean, it’s nice and I’m very happy and grateful that we are able to get the media, but we’re not doing it for the cameras. We’re not doing it for the recognition. We’re doing it because we want to make a difference and put a smile on people’s faces. We used to do all kinds of charity events with shelters. And a lot of people don’t know, the ends of our bread, we’re feeding the homeless with.
Kelly Meerbott: Oh wow.
Geno Vento: So that’s how to give them away. Our ends of our meat, we used to grind up and give it to them to make meatballs. We work with … I used to do ActionAIDS, I used to work with the cancer, the Gay Men’s Chorus. There was one time a girl in the area, in south Philly, had her wheelchair stolen and she was physically challenged and needed the wheelchair, motorized and everything. My dad went out and bought one. Him and Pat Croce.
Kelly Meerbott: Oh my god.
Geno Vento: We [inaudible 00:17:27] different things. I used to … Not dress up as Santa, but be like a Santa elf, and we hooked up a little bit with the Q102 Christmas thing with [inaudible 00:17:38]. And then also, I took upon myself, is that … At a certain point in life, how many presents can you have? How many gifts can you have-
Kelly Meerbott: How much stuff can you have?
Geno Vento: Stuff you need. Where I know there’s other kids in life that don’t get a gift, or a card. So me and my parents, when I was a teenager, stopped buying each other … We got one gift for each other, but nothing major. Just a little something, just to open. But what we did is, we turned around and helped out three to five families, and gave them a Christmas to remember, with clothing, bedding, pots, pans, jackets. One time we gave a range, ’cause one of the ranges was a Christmas tree. Stuff like that. And we would rent a limo, and make it like Santa’s-
Kelly Meerbott: Sleigh.
Geno Vento: … Sleigh kind of thing. And we’d rent an SUV, and we would take the family out and have lunch, and all that. And we did it with no cameras. No publicity or anything. But it was just little things, because I was in … I think it was a Target, six, seven years ago. And there was a family, young kid, “Mommy, can I get this present?” “Well, we’ll see if we can get Santa to bring it.” And I knew it wasn’t going to be at Santa. So I went and bought it, went up to them, and said, “Here you go, Merry Christmas.”
Kelly Meerbott: I love that. I love that.
Geno Vento: Stuff like that. Seeing their faces and the smiles is what it does it,
Kelly Meerbott: It’s so worth it, right?
Geno Vento: I did the Bear Program with CHOP Hospital, and Oldies 98, we had a bear drive here. And we got to go with Valerie Knight and the DJs, and we gave out bears to the kids. And believe it or not, I had teenage kids so happy that they got a bear, ’cause they’re in the hospital during Christmas. And the worst thing to do is be in a hospital at Christmas-
Kelly Meerbott: I mean, awful.
Geno Vento: … with tubes and cancer and all this other stuff. So to have a smiling face then … Or we get to do different charity events through the city with the cancer walks and runs, and sometimes people make this a destination at the end of a run, or the end of their charity, to come here and have cheesesteaks, that kind of thing.
Kelly Meerbott: Which, of course, after a 10 mile run, what’s best but a Geno’s cheesesteak? And for the audience that’s listening in, do you see why I’m in love with this man? He’s just such a-
Geno Vento: I’m very lucky. Very lucky, and very … It’s a blessing to be able to do what I can do. But the thing is, when I see other people smiling, it makes me happy. I love doing for others. It’s hard to surprise me, ’cause I usually am the surpriser. I like to do the thing, and that’s what my dad was like. And that’s one thing I got from him is he loved to put smiles on faces or do the unordinary or the surprise, wow factor, I call it.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Oh my gosh. Wow. I’m breathless. You’re just unbelievable, Geno. I knew you were a force when you came into my life, but I just had no idea how just deep and positive you are. I’m grateful. Thank you so much for giving me your time.
Kelly Meerbott: I usually like to finish with four rapid fire questions. And they’re all-
Geno Vento: You can ask me whatever you want. I’m an open book.
Kelly Meerbott: I know, me too. So okay. What’s your favorite comfort food?
Geno Vento: I actually have two.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay.
Geno Vento: Chicken cutlets and macaroni and cheese.
Kelly Meerbott: Those are so good. Okay, what books are on your nightstand? And Geno’s moving, so if his nightstand is not next to his bed, we can forgive him for that.
Geno Vento: I can’t say I read books because unless it has a lot of pictures. But I would have to say OK! Magazine, People, and Star.
Kelly Meerbott: Good, no, that’s … No judgment. No judgment.
Geno Vento: I’m one of those celebrity gossip … Seeing if my friends are in there and what they’re doing.
Kelly Meerbott: Yes, Geno rubs elbows with a lot of people like Robert DeNiro, of course. So okay. What’s on your playlist right now?
Geno Vento: ’80s and ’90s. But when I’m at home and I like to relax and decompress, Josh Bourbon or Michael Buble.
Kelly Meerbott: Nice, nice. Okay, last question. What are you most grateful for in this moment right now?
Geno Vento: The blessings in life that I have. My friends, and meeting you.
Kelly Meerbott: Thank you. So Geno, if you’re in Philly or you’re in one of your … In one of the locations, where can we find you? Where can we find Geno’s Steaks?
Geno Vento: The main sistership is … It’s south Philly. It’s at 1219 South Ninth Street. It’s in the beginning of the Italian market. Or you can catch me at SugarHouse Casino. I’m usually flipping steaks there, I’m often in. Or you can actually get me at the airport. So on your to and from, in the B and C terminal, you can get the cheesesteak and come by and say hi. Or if not, Xfinity Live, if you’re at a baseball game, football game, or even a concert, after the concert, you can come and get the cheesesteak, have a beer, and relax.
Kelly Meerbott: That’s awesome. And we can buy some of your gear online, is that true?
Geno Vento: Yes, we have an online store. GenosGear.com. Or if not, you can see me on the weekends. I’m here, and usually popping in and meeting different customers and things like that. Taking pictures, and displaying some of the shirts and stuff that we have. And koozies and magnets and all kinds of stuff. And we have baby stuff coming up, too.
Kelly Meerbott: You have baby stuff coming out?
Geno Vento: Yup. And we’re bottling the hot sauce. It’s coming out at the end of December. We were trying to get it before Christmas, but-
Kelly Meerbott: It’s not going to happen?
Geno Vento: Production was not. But we’re actually … Dad came up with the recipe, I think I want to say 25, 30 years ago. And people love it so much that we’re actually bottling it. And it’s a Geno’s Steaks label, bottle, everything. Wait ’til you see it.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah. Just so you know, I’m drinking a Geno’s Steaks water, which is also-
Geno Vento: Yeah, have my own water bottle.
Kelly Meerbott: Yes, with a smiling picture of Geno on it, so make sure, if you have a chance, to meet this wonderful man, ’cause he’s not only a treasure to Philadelphia, but he’s a treasure to the world. And I challenge you, our listening audience, to go out and have an authentic conversation, just like Geno and I did, because all it does is deepen relationships between the two of us. And we need more connection in this world.
Geno Vento: And I love to cook, too.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah.
Geno Vento: I went to culinary school three years ago, graduated. Got my associate’s degree. And it was just basically, once again, giving back to myself. I love to cook, love to entertain. I’m not really much into the bar scene, especially with my line of work at night, I’m always at events and this and that. So for me to sit at home with my jogging pants and my t-shirt, having some friends over, make some appetizers. Maybe open a bottle of wine, watch some TV, maybe have a UFC fight. And I call my buddy Dana, and tell him that we’re having another UFC fight at the house, and it gets all fun.
Kelly Meerbott: Nice. That’s awesome.
Geno Vento: But yeah, I’m more of a homebody.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah. And I’ve had the privilege of sitting with Geno, [inaudible 00:24:45], and it’s one of the most hospitable experiences you can ever have. So to be in his circle of friends, count yourself lucky. Thank you so much. I’m really, really, really grateful to you.
Geno Vento: Oh, thank you, Kelly.
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Speaker 1: To learn more about Kelly and the services she provides, visit YouLoudAndClear.com. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a new episode.