"This is a melting pot, that's correct. But what makes it work is knowing . . . English," cheesesteak impresario Joey Vento told the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, which held a hearing yesterday on whether signs Vento posted at his South Philadelphia shop - advising patrons to "please speak English" - are illegal under the city's ordinance against unfair discrimination.
Vento, owner of Geno's Steaks, said his restaurant serves more than 600,000 steak sandwiches a year and never refused service based on a patron's national origin.
The signs - which say "This is America. When ordering, please speak English" - serve two purposes, he said: to express his First Amendment-protected opinion about immigration; and to encourage faster ordering at the neon-splashed shop, where the line is sometimes 50 customers deep.
A multimillionaire who began in 1966 with just $6, Vento scoffed at the idea that the intent of the signs is to make certain people feel unwelcome.
"You think I'm stupid? You think I built a successful business by refusing service?" he testified.
Witnesses for the prosecution contended that the atmosphere created by the signs intimidates non-English speakers and those who don't speak the language well.
"It's a political statement with a prejudice against me," testified Ricardo Diaz, a social worker of Hispanic heritage.
"It was embarrassing to me as a Philadelphian, and humiliating to me as a Latino," said Roberto Santiago, the executive director of the Council on Spanish-Speaking Organizations. "It's a slap in the face."
About 200 people attended the seven-hour hearing at the Arch Street Friends Meeting House in Center City.
The combative session, in which lawyers sparred sarcastically, was the result of a complaint in June 2006 by the commission chairman, the Rev. James Allen Sr.
The case has attracted national attention. In addition to local lawyers, Vento is represented by the Southeastern Legal Foundation, a public-interest law firm in Atlanta.
Both sides stipulated that no patrons had been denied service on the basis of their inability to speak English. The legal question is whether the sign creates an atmosphere in which "any specific group" is made to feel discriminated against.
University of Pennsylvania sociology professor Camille Charles testified that the population of foreign-born residents living near Geno's has tripled in the last two decades. She said the "speak English" signs are reminiscent of "Whites only" signs from the Jim Crow era in the South.
Vento's attorneys strenuously denied that and asked for the case to be thrown out because they were not given sufficient time to prepare for the cross-examination of the prosecution's witnesses.
Outside, one man held a "Hail Geno" sign bearing an American flag. A group wore black T-shirts with a message that Pennsylvania loves immigrants.
Leading Vento's legal team was Shannon Goessling of the Southeastern Legal Foundation.
While some people might be offended by Vento's signs, she contended, they aren't illegal. "Do you want the freedom from being offended?" she asked the three-member panel hearing the case. "Or the freedom of speech? You can't have both."
Leading the prosecution for the commission was Paul M. Hummer, of the law firm Saul Ewing.
The commission took the case under advisement. A ruling is expected in about two months.