The "fuss" around Penn reels has as much to do with practicality as it does nostalgia. Penn's been around for a long time (so has ABU), and has a well established market. Penn also makes some serious no-nonsense reels that are work-horses... they aren't the prettiest reels, but they get the job done day in and day out.
Pretty much the same thing can be said for Abu....they are like Ford Vs. Chevy..
I dislike the incredible slow gearing (2.8-1) of the 209, but for offshore cranking it's great. I also dont care for the lever engagement combined with a star drag. As turtle1173 said the GTi series are great and I would think a 310GTi would be an excellent reel for big cats with plenty of guts and line capacity, and reasonable for casting. If I had to get a penn today for cats, it would be a GTi.
I'd encourage you to look into reels with a lever drag and here's why;
The lever drag system gives you various degrees of drag on demand
You position your drag lever in the freespool setting and cast your bait out there.
Then you push the lever forward to the "bait" setting (or similar, ever reel is a little bit different) This applies just a small amount of drag on the spool, on my cat reel its set so that the spool will rotate easily but not pick up any inertia and spin freely. Now, when that BIG ole cat comes along and grabs at your bait and heads for the hills he wont take your ROD with him, or break it trying. Also it will prevent a hard hitting fish from causing a backlash while youre waiting in freespool. The fish isnt the only one likely to cause a backlash, if the kids or dog runs under the line or trip over the you wont get a birds nest in your reel. And as already mentioned, if you get a little excited when the fish hits you dont have to worry about accidentally forgetting to engage the spool. Essentially this is what the spinning reels call a "bait runner" same thing, just on a castig reel
Now if you have a average fish on, you just bump the lever drag up enough to tire him out or all the way up to reel in quick and get your bait back out there for the big one waiting.. your choice...
Same goes when the cat of a lifetime comes along, you can keep increasing the drag as needed or backing off the drag as needed if you happen to have too much fish on and it looks like he might break off. None of this adjusting is done behind the crank arm! So its easier to get to and more precise.
And the good news, all this is pre-set, so once you land your fish, you just bait back up, kick the lever all the way back to freespool and start all over... I will probably never use a star drag reel again for bait fishing, because the lever drags are just so convenient.
If your heart is set on a Penn or Abu, then bless you, they are wonder reels and a staple to fishing from coast to coast. If you would maybe like to venture out of the norm a little and get an incredible reel for about $50 more than the Garcia 7000s take a look at the thread asking of anyone else uses Avet reels. (I guess no one does since no one has replied hahaha) but the little SX is about the size of the Abu 5500 series with the guts, strength and drag of a big salt water reel, it can be a demon to cast however so if your use to conventionals youll warm up quick.. if not, then your going to have to learn to cast to keep up with this reel because they are F A S T !