Joey Vento, the impresario of cheesesteaks whose "speak English" sign at his South Philly sandwich shop made him famous to some, infamous to others, died Tuesday of a heart attack.

A multimillionaire who started with little more than the change in his pocket, Vento, 71, built his Geno's Steaks into an institution nearly as well known as the Liberty Bell.

His arrival on the national stage came via a 2006 controversy, when he erected signs that advised his customers at Ninth and Passyunk that if they wanted to eat, they better order in English.

"This is America. When ordering, please speak English," said the sign.

And while many railed that he was being discriminatory, the city's own human relations agency dismissed a discrimination complaint in 2008.

Last night, Joseph Perno, 50, the night manager and Vento's nephew, said his uncle had come to work Tuesday morning, keeping to his usual schedule. "He was here every morning" Perno said. "He was here this morning. He was dedicated to his business and his family."

Domenic Chiavaroli, 65, of South Philadelphia, was among those who gathered at the shop. He and Vento were longtime friends. "I've been coming here since 1967. Joe was a good guy. He always tried to help everybody."

On Tuesday morning, Chiavaroli said, he and Vento talked about new tile work installed inside the sandwich shop, before the owner returned to his home in South Jersey.

Chiavaroli said Vento had phoned in a bread order for the store about 6 p.m., and then told his wife he wasn't feeling well and went to his bedroom to lie down.

"He wasn't feeling too good. . . . An hour or so later his wife found him," Chiavaroli said family members told him.

As news of Vento's passing spread, sympathy came from competitors, too. Across the intersection at archrival Pat's King of Steaks, the manager, who would give his name only as Johnny, had only kind words for Vento.

"It's a shame. I feel very bad," he said. "I knew him for a very long time. He's a nice guy. Businesswise, he was a good guy."

Mayor Nutter issued a statement that recalled Vento as "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."

When the split three-member human relations commission ruled that Vento's sign did not convey a message that service would be refused to non-English speakers, Vento was pleased.

"It's a good victory," he said, and added: "The bottom line is that I didn't do anything wrong." Vento always insisted he served everyone, no matter what their language.

Some commentators and websites portrayed Vento as the heroic victim of political correctness. Vento was grateful for the publicity.

"They made me famous throughout the world," Vento said at the time. "I'm way ahead of the game. I became a hero. I've got to thank them for that."

In interviews, Vento said he could never stomach whiners.

"I grew up where they called me every name in the book: Wop! Dago! Guinea! Midget! But come on! You've got to roll with the punches," he said in 2006.

Vento's candor often obscured his charity.

He spent more than $100,000 to support an Elton John AIDS-awareness concert.

He raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for police charities. He donated $60,000 worth of food a year to a hospice.

After his success, Vento had a 13-acre spread with a stable for horses, and lived in Shamong, but still pulled a morning shift at the shop.

The grandson of Italian immigrants, Vento spent time working for his father, a small-time restaurateur whose steak shop sat across the street from where Geno's now stands.

The pair clashed over how to run the business, Jim's Steaks. The elder Vento was convicted of contracting a murder, and in 1966, the same year his father died in prison, Vento started his own shop with a $2,000 loan from his father-in-law. Because another store was already named Joe's, he chose the name Geno's. He named his son, born in 1971, after the restaurant. Vento's brother also had a run-in with the law.

Vento was candid about his background. "My family history wasn't that great," Vento said in 2006, "but I reversed it. I brought the respect back. My father and my brother are laughing now - they're so proud of what I did."

And as always, the customers came from all over Tuesday night.

Joe Acquaviva, 43, and three fellow Albany, N.Y., police officers were in town for a law enforcement seminar and decided to try Geno's after taking in the Phillies game.

"It was like we had to come to Geno's, and the we found out the sad news."

How was his first Geno's cheesesteak?

"It was delicious," he said as he crumpled the wrapper.

Contact staff writer Robert Moran at 215-854-5983 or bmoran@phillynews.com.