WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama says “ciao” Tuesday to White House state dinners as he honors U.S. ally Italy with the final one of his presidency.
And he’s cranked the White House machinery into high gear to help elevate an up-and-coming European leader he holds in high regard.
Some 400 guests are expected to join Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his wife, Agnese Landini, and Obama and his wife, Michelle, for a sumptuous, four-course meal served inside of a massive tent erected on the South Lawn. The guest list makes this 13th and final state dinner among the largest of Obama’s presidency.
“We saved the best for last,” Obama said somewhat wistfully as he welcomed the Italians during a pageantry-filled South Lawn arrival ceremony on an unseasonably warm, mid-October day.
On the way to dinner, guests were being invited to tour Mrs. Obama’s world-famous “kitchen” garden. She and Landini sipped tea there together earlier Tuesday.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the highest-ranking Italian American in U.S. politics, and her husband, Paul Pelosi, are among the guests.
Celebrity chef Mario Batali was helping the White House kitchen crew prepare the meal, and Grammy Award-winning singer Gwen Stefani was on tap to perform after the tables have been cleared.
The menu was designed to showcase traditional Italian dishes that Americans are familiar with and feature ingredients pulled from Mrs. Obama’s garden during this month’s final harvest.
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 beef pinwheels, an Italian classic, served with broccoli rabe. Dessert is a green apple crostata, or Italian tart, served with buttermilk gelato, or Italian ice cream.
“It’s such an incredibly, well-orchestrated thing, but you have to get the food out superfast,” Rick Bayless, one of the country’s most respected voices when it comes to Mexican food, said in an interview from one of his Chicago restaurants. Bayless is friends with the Obamas and, in 2009, they enlisted him as “guest chef” for a 200-person White House state dinner for Mexico.
Batali, a restaurant owner, cookbook author and authority on Italian cuisine, seemed to have things under control by midday Tuesday.
His very active Twitter page featured near hourly postings, including photos of him with the four chefs who accompanied him from New York, of him on the presidential basketball court sporting his trademark pair of orange Crocs, of him with Obama dogs Bo and Sunny, and of dinner ingredients in various stages of preparation, including a close-up of the almost-ready beef pinwheels.
Obama has held 13 state dinners during nearly eight years in office, two more than President George W. Bush, who held 11, 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.