- By Kavitha SuranaKavitha Surana is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She has reported from Italy, Germany, and Senegal and her stories have been published in the past by the Associated Press, Quartz, Al Jazeera, CNN, GlobalPost and OZY. She holds a joint master’s degree in journalism and European and Mediterranean studies from New York University.
Tuesday night marks President Barack Obama’s last state dinner and he’s closing out his eight years in the White House with a wallop of Italian style, hosting guests Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his wife, Agnese Landini.
The event gives the energetic Florentine leader a chance to bask in the good vibes of Obama — who is still immensely popular in Italy — as the prime minister struggles to win an important constitutional referendum back home to slim down the parliament in Rome and give more powers to the executive branch.
Since Renzi declared he would leave office if the reform doesn’t pass, many analysts worry disgruntled Italians are using the referendum as a protest vote, playing into the hands of anti-establishment parties. Perhaps Renzi hopes some Obama mojo will rub off on him just in time for the vote in December — though the American president’s lobbying ahead of the Brexit vote for Great Britain to remain in the EU didn’t seem to much help David Cameron.
For his part, Obama pulled out all his props at a press conference Tuesday, boosting Renzi as a key ally and saying he “saved the best for last.” Obama also praised the 41-year-old premier for embodying “a new generation of leadership, not just for Italy, but also for Europe” and put his stamp of approval on the constitutional reform as a necessary step to accelerate Italy’s economy. Renzi was similarly fawning, calling America Italy’s “best friend.”
The photo-op evening Tuesday night will include a performance from Gwen Stefani, dinner served by Italian-American celebrity chef Mario Batali, and a roster of important Italian figures. For a prime minster always surrounded by a whirlwind of tweets and Instagram photos, it’s the perfect distraction to cover up difficulties at home and entice Italian voters to his side by displaying positive Italian priorities on the world stage.
Here’s a look at what Renzi may be hoping the important guests in his entourage will symbolize:
Giorgio Armani — One of Italy’s longest standing fashion icons, inviting Armani is a nod to the important place of fashion in Italian culture and, just as important, economy. As prime minister, Renzi has taken a particular interest in supporting the fashion industry. “Other politicians were worried to be seen in fashion because it would be seen as not serious,” designer Ermanno Daelli told Vogue. “Renzi knows that fashion is an economic engine.” And apparently Renzi harbors no hard feelings against the 82-year-old designer, who once called Renzi “chubby” and criticized his boyish no-tie style as “cute, but that white shirt….”
Giusi Nicolini — As refugees and migrants continue to cross the Mediterranean in record numbers, the leadership of the mayor of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island hit by the crisis, has been held up as a symbol of the country’s compassionate mandate. Bringing Nicolini sends a message of Italy’s humanitarian commitments, aligning the country with popular Canadian leader Justin Trudeau (to whom Renzi was just compared in the Washington Post style section).
Paolo Sorrentino — The brooding filmmaker hit it big at the Oscars two years ago with The Great Beauty, a sumptuous film about an aging playboy wandering a decadent Rome. The film’s success abroad showed Italy remains a powerhouse of art and culture, even if the days of Cinecittá and “Hollywood on the Tiber” have waned. Sorrentino, who made a much-lauded biopic of former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, is now reportedly working on a film about Renzi’s predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi. Perhaps Renzi hopes he’ll last in power long enough to one day make the filmmaker’s list?
Raffaele Cantone — One of Renzi’s first moves upon taking office in 2014 was instituting a national anti-corruption authority, headed up by Cantone, whose unimpeachable credentials include years investigating mafia activity in Naples. Bringing him to the state dinner signals Italy’s commitment to cleaning up pervasive corruption and hopefully attracting more foreign investors to trust the country’s judicial system.
Roberto Benigni — The Italian director and comedian is best known for the film Life is Beautiful, a heart-wrenching tragicomedy about a man trying to protect his son from the horrors of a concentration camp. He’s also remembered for his exuberant Oscar acceptance speech in 1998, climbing over chairs to get to the stage. The popular comedian could also be a powerful voice for Renzi’s platform: In 2012, he hosted a television special dedicated to the Italian Constitution, drawing 12.6 million viewers. Earlier this month, Benigni warned consequences of a “no” on Renzi’s referendum would be “worse than Brexit.”
Beatrice Vio — Instead of bringing a stereotypical macho Italian soccer player to Washington, Renzi chose to honor Paralympic athlete Vio with an invitation to the dinner. A wheelchair fencer after surviving meningitis, Vio came home with the gold from Rio’s Paralymics this year.
Mario Batali — He’s not exactly a guest, but the celebrity chef — orange crocs and all — is tasked with cooking for the 500 attendees at Obama’s last state dinner. With his slightly experimental approach to Italian traditional dishes, he’s the perfect choice to blend the best of both countries and serve up fresh takes on Italian-American classics — though he doesn’t plan venturing too far afield while cooking for the Italians. “The dishes were all inspired by Italian dishes, so they will be simple and recognizable, but each with something to delight and surprise,” he told the New York Times.
Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images