NEW YORK (AP) _ Even when drug dealers began working the streets near the Second Avenue Deli, a cadre of New Yorkers, tourists and celebrities were not deterred.

Bob Hope once stopped by the gastronomic institution in lower Manhattan. So did Muhammad Ali. Owner Abe Lebewohl always greeted them with heaping portions of pastrami and personality.

``The neighborhood was like a nice girl with a bad reputation,'' Lebewohl once said when asked why he stuck around. ``But I had faith.''

His dedication proved deadly Monday when he was shot to death in a holdup outside a bank six blocks from his business. Minutes later, the deli _ normally bustling _ was hushed by sorrow.

``No one worked harder or gave more,'' said Ben Feit, 66, a part-time waiter who joined other workers and regular customers for an impromptu wake behind the kosher deli's locked front door. ``Why would this happen to such a man?''

Police had few immediate answers and no suspects.

Lebewohl, 64, was slain Monday morning while running errands in a white delivery van. His last stop was at a branch of the NatWest bank six blocks from his East Village shop, and one block from the Ninth Precinct stationhouse.

Someone apparently tried to rob Lebewohl at about 9:30 a.m., shortly before he entered the bank, said police spokesman Tom Kelly.

One or more suspects apparently forced him into the van, where he was shot three times in the head and stomach, Kelly said. The suspects then drove Lebewohl's van about a half block, abandoned it and fled on foot, Kelly said. Lebewohl, apparently trying to get help, tumbled out of the passenger side of the van and fell to the ground, mortally wounded.

Police did not immediately know how much was taken. Kelly said Lebewohl was depositing the weekend receipts.

He was rushed to Bellevue Hospital Center, where he was pronounced dead. Survivors include a wife and two daughters.

Employees recalled that their boss had been robbed under similar circumstances about two years ago. But Lebewohl, who was known for working 14-hour days, ``was not the type of person to be fazed by that,'' said the deli manager, Steve Cohen. ``It was impossible to slow him down.''

Lebewohl (pronounced LEB ee wall) opened his deli at the site of an old coffee shop in March 1954, four years after arriving in the United States from western Ukraine.

Over the years, the deli owner displayed a flair for cooking up chicken soup with matzo balls and generating publicity.

In observance of the deli's 40th anniversary, Lebewohl restored his 1954 prices. Hundreds of people lined up for a menu that included pastrami on rye for 50 cents.

He also once negotiated with Soviet officials to open what he billed as Moscow's first kosher deli. But the fall of the Communist Party foiled the plan.

Comedian Jackie Mason and divorce attorney Raoul Felder, friends of Lebewohl's, offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer or killers.

``Abe would hate the signal this crime sends out _ that New York is an unsafe place,'' Felder said.