Lunch hour at Geno's Steaks in South Philadelphia bought out a boisterous bunch of supporters who defended owner Joey Vento, who would be defending himself and his infamous "speak English" sign this afternoon before the city's Commission on Human Relations.
"We think this city is raking Joey over the coals," said retiree Nick Skolsky from Media, who came via a half-full motorcoach organized by radio host Dom Giordano of WPHT (1210 AM).
In the background, a few aging cheerleader wannabes chanted, "We want Joey! We want Joey! He's the man!"
"We want the steaks, too!" chimed in one kid.
"What's the problem? We're in America!" said Vento, addressing reporters. "I'm trying to help people in this country. To be successful here, you have to speak English."
Another busee, George Peperyias, 64, who lives at the Shore, took a day from his government job to deliver his protest. Pulling out a folded-up sheet of yellow legal paper, he declared, "This hearing is a violation of a number of constitutional rights," as he started reading Bill of Rights excerpts from his notes.
Giordano, sporting an uneseasonably lightweight blue sportscoat, held court at times.
"It's bufoonery in Philadelphia and it's on parade!" he proclaimed.
"People think he's being mean," he said of Vento. "He's been charged with public meanness. ... All this over a 3-by-6-inch sign! This is the epitome is theater!"
While the sign is physically a little larger, it has become much larger than life.
It all began in June 2006, when Vento put a sign in his steak-shop window saying, "This is America, when ordering, please 'speak English.' "
The notice soon generated national media attention, making local tourism officials cringe.
The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations decided to charge that Vento discriminated against non-English speakers, and finally, the hearing on the docket for 1:30 p.m. today.
The commission alleges that Vento's sign violates the section of the city's Fair Practices Ordinance that prohibits the owner of a public accommodation from putting up a sign aimed at "any specific group" to make its members feel discriminated against or unwelcome.
Below the Geno's sign was another that stated, "Management reserves the right to refuse service."
No customer, however, has been denied a cheesesteak for not speaking English, Vento has said.
The hearing panel is composed of Human Relations Commissioners Joseph J. Centeno, Roxanne E. Covington and Burt Siegel.
The hearing, open to the public, was to take place at the Arch Street Meeting House, 320 Arch St.