LEADING Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani stopped off last night at Geno's Steaks, the South Philly cheesesteak stand that has drawn national attention for its English-only ordering policy.

"This is America. People have a right to their own opinions," the former New York City mayor said of the requirement.

Giuliani added, "If you want to become a citizen of the United States, you have to read, write and speak English."

For his part, Giuliani ordered a Whiz wit. In English.

More than a year ago, the steak shop became part of the national debate on immigration when owner Joey Vento hung up a sign that read: "This is America. When ordering, please speak English."

The sign - considered a message to the growing Mexican population in South Philadelphia - turned into worldwide news. Since then, the sandwich shop has become something of a right-wing rallying ground.

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, who held very conservative views on immigration, appeared at Geno's during his failed re-election campaign last year.

Outside the small neon-lit stand last night, a throng of Giuliani supporters gathered with about a dozen protesters. The crowd swarmed Giuliani and his wife, Judith, as he tried to order a sandwich. "Get the Whiz," one man yelled, perhaps alluding to U.S. Sen. John Kerry's ill-fated Geno's visit in 2003, when he ordered a steak with Swiss.

Waving signs that read "I Immigration," activists criticized Giuliani for visiting Geno's and attacked him on his immigration views.

Since entering the presidential race, Giuliani has often played down his mayoral record of support for illegal immigrants. Now, he stresses strong border control and penalties for people in the United States illegally.

"Giuliani really has flip-flopped on this issue," said Reagan Cooper, executive director of Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition.

To questions on immigration, Giuliani said: "Immigration is wonderful . . . But you have to do it legally."

Perhaps the most excited person at Geno's last night was Vento himself. The small, gold-chained man yelled to the crowd: "Ladies and gentlemen I want to introduce you to the first Italian-American president. Take that to the bank. Joey Vento knows!" *