The National Italian American Foundation’s 47th Anniversary Gala was a majestic soiree that took its audience on a mystical journey from the concrete jungle of Washington to the wondrous sights and sounds of Italy. The annual tradition is a festive occasion that honors the socio-cultural bond between Italy and the United States and the contributions of Italian people to the country (and, ultimately, the world).
As someone of Sicilian heritage, and therefore admittedly biased, it’s easy to jump on the cultural bandwagon and promote everything Italian. After all, Italy is known for its culture, food, and wine and as one of the world’s premiere tourist destinations. It’s hard not to beam with ethnic pride. But the National Italian American Foundation goes deeper than that. It hosts this annual gala, which is the organization’s preeminent celebration. It combines elegant pageantry with the verisimilitude of the core tenets of the organization’s mission statement: being a resource for Italian Americans, preserving Italian heritage and culture, and promoting and inspiring positive imagery.
Before the gala started, guests gathered to take pictures and sip on cocktails. Then, members of the Bandierai degli Uffizi played trumpets and drums to summon people to go to their tables. For the uninitiated, the group is known for entertaining crowds at Tuscany’s Florentine Historical Football games.
Each year, this jubilee honors a particular area of Italy, and this year’s event celebrated the beautiful region of Tuscany. Featuring cities such as Florence, Pisa, and Siena, Tuscany is known for its art, wines, and history. Tuscany has been hailed as the birthplace of the Renaissance. It’s an absolutely marvelous area to visit — and that’s kind of what the audience did.
While everyone may have physically been at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., NIAF took people’s imaginations on an extraordinary journey under the Tuscan sky. All one had to do was close their eyes, listen closely, and take a whiff through their noses, and it was as if they were suddenly transported to the “old country.” The sights, the sounds, the tastes, the ambiance: Such is the magic of NIAF’s gala.
Fox News’s Maria Bartiromo and comedian Joe Piscopo were the hosts, and they started the night with fireworks — literally. A dazzling display of white sparklers lit up the room and dazzled everyone. And then, the fun started!
“It’s a great night to be an Italian American,” NIAF Chairman Robert E. Carlucci said to the hundreds in attendance.
The audience was privileged to hear remarks from NIAF President Robert Allegrini, Italian Ambassador to the U.S. Mariangela Zappia, and Eugenio Giani, the president of Tuscany, among others. My favorite speech of the night was delivered in a prerecorded address by Italy’s newly elected Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. She delivered a rousing, passionate, and patriotic message emphasizing the vital relationship between Italy and the U.S. Many stated they wished she was there and hoped to see her next year.
Later, NIAF announced the recipients of the organization’s most prestigious honor, the Leonardo da Vinci Award. Each winner gave a speech about their experiences in life. Among this year’s winners included Rep. Bill Pascrell, culinary legend Giada De Laurentiis, and former CIA Director and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
One of the award winners was Jason Castriota. A relative unknown compared to the previous names, I found Castriota’s story one of the most interesting of the evening. Coming from a modest background, Castriota eventually became one of the world’s leading automobile designers. He has worked for some of the world’s most luxurious car companies, such as Maserati, Ferrari, and Rolls Royce. In 2021, he conceived the design for the car that set the world record for speed, the SSC Tuatara, which topped out at nearly 300 mph.
“Great design is about creativity and ingenuity, and it brings joy,” Castriota said during his speech after accepting his award. “It inspires a new generation to be more creative and innovative.”
Of course, being of Italian heritage was essential to the evening’s celebration. And, as we all know too well, Italian Americans are known for their humility. But what would the night be without a bit of ethnic bravado?
“Since Roman times, Italians have done it better,” Castriota said. And “better” is exactly what NIAF does all the time.
And, speaking of better, as some of the world’s most fascinating Italian Americans delivered speeches, the audience feasted on arguably the most delicious, mouth-watering dinner ever cooked — curated by none other than award recipient De Laurentiis. Naturally, the food was Tuscan-inspired to go along with the evening’s theme.
As they say in Italian, “Squisito!”
NIAF is the apex when it comes to Italian American organizations and events. Each year, the gala continues to amaze and, like a fine wine, gets better with age. It’s nothing short of a “grande momento.” And while there are many galas in Washington, and around the world, one would be hard-pressed to find any better than this one. The NIAF Gala is more than a dinner, and it’s more than an event. It should be a cultural rite of passage.