WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama on Tuesday held one of the largest state dinners of his tenure to celebrate the "enduring alliance" between the U.S. and Italy.
The soiree for Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was the 13th and final state dinner for Obama, who leaves office in January. "Bittersweet" was the word several guests chose to describe the evening.
Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said it's "a little sad" that it's Obama's last state dinner. But to make the occasion even more memorable, he said, "For tonight only, I pronounce my name 'Canoli,' not 'Connolly."
Johnny Wright, who styles Michelle Obama's hair, also described the moment as "bittersweet," but he, too, was excited to have been invited.
Others sought to inject some levity into the evening.
"We're Jews, but we identify as Italian," joked comedian Jerry Seinfeld. By way of explaining why the Obamas may have invited him and his wife, Jessica, Seinfeld said they spend a lot of time traveling in Italy "and we almost exclusively go out for Italian food, but that's as far as I can figure."
Obama appeared on a recent episode of Seinfeld's online program "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," in which they took turns circling the South Lawn in a 1963 Corvette Stingray coupe.
After tripping while climbing stairs and then cutting out the lining of her dress, celebrity chef Rachael Ray joked, "I should only come here in sneakers." Ray has done numerous events with the White House to support first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" anti-childhood obesity initiative.
Other guests of Italian heritage included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the highest-ranking Italian-American in U.S. politics; former race car driver Mario Andretti, who sported socks designed like a checkered racing flag; fashion designer Giorgio Armani; actor John Turturro; New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo; and actor-director Roberto Benigni.
Once again, Mrs. Obama didn't disappoint, dazzling in a rose gold chainmail gown from Italian label Atelier Versace, the White House said. Other women also went Italian in their choice of attire, clothing themselves in designs by Valentino, Roberto Cavalli and others.
Celebrity chef Mario Batali was enlisted to help the White House kitchen crew prepare the meal, and Grammy-winning pop singer Gwen Stefani was performing after the tables were cleared. Not only did Batali collaborate on dinner, he was also invited to attend as a guest. Stefani's boyfriend, country singer Blake Shelton, also attended.
A few guests — including cook Sandra Lee, Cuomo's partner — said they were most looking forward to eating Batali's food.
In his pre-dinner toast, Obama said American democracy had been graced by a touch of Italy. He noted that the Lincoln Memorial and the interior of the U.S. Capitol dome were done by Italians, and raised a glass to the two nations' "enduring alliance."
Calling attention to Benigni's presence, Obama said the actor-director had "promised not to jump on the tables." The comment recalled Benigni's antics after he won an Academy Award in 1999 for the Italian film "Life is Beautiful."
Batali, executive chef Cristeta Comerford and pastry chef Susie Morrison settled on a menu of sweet potato ravioli with browned butter and sage, warm butternut squash salad and an entree of beef pinwheels, an Italian classic, served with broccoli rabe. Dessert was a green apple crostata, or Italian tart, served with buttermilk gelato, or Italian ice cream.
The menu was designed to showcase traditional Italian dishes that are familiar to Americans and were made using ingredients, such as the sweet potatoes and herbs, pulled from Mrs. Obama's garden during this month's final harvests.
Obama has held 13 state dinners during nearly eight years in office — two more than President George W. Bush, but fewer than other recent predecessors, according to the White House Historical Association. President Bill Clinton far exceeded both of his successors with 28 dinners during his two terms in office.