NIAF 44th Anniversary Gala in Review

The Omni Shoreham Hotel was swarming with more than 2,000 Italian and Italian Americans all weekend-long in celebration of our shared heritage and culture for the National Italian American Foundation’s 44th Anniversary Gala on Saturday, November 2, in Washington, D.C.

Catch a glimpse of the entire weekend by viewing a selection of photographs captured and curated by our house photographers, Andy DelGiudice and Rachel Couch. To see a wider selection of images from the entire weekend, and purchase your photos, CLICK HERE.

This year’s NIAF Gala, the nation’s premier Italian American gathering, was presented by the 2019 NIAF Region of Honor, Molise; so, the weekend’s theme was Molisano, from enjoying its wines and cuisine to learning about its family businesses, history and culture. The centerpiece of Gala Weekend was Saturday evening’s black-tie Gala Awards Dinner, featuring a feast of Molise-inspired dishes and wines while recognizing the outstanding achievements of five distinguished honorees who have made distinctive contributions in their professional fields and toward making a better world.

Following the invocation by Reverend Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A., President of Villanova University, actress, dancer and singer Christina Carlucci sang the Italian and United States national anthems. NIAF Chairs Patricia de Stacy Harrison and Gabriel A. Battista then welcomed a full-capacity ballroom of guests, and recognized the evening’s NIAF Board Members, honorees and special guests.

As guests started dining with centerpiece platters of assorted charcuterie and cheeses, marinated artichokes, sundried tomatoes and olives (grazie to Gala sponsor Parmacotto), alongside plates brimming with fresh creamy burrata cheese (provided by Gala sponsor Caseificio Artigiana), Gala Chairman Joseph Lonardo thanked everyone for participating in the evening’s celebration and for their “generous support of the Foundation in fulfilling our mission….”

When the personable Ambassador of Italy to the United States Armando Varricchio took the podium, he fondly spoke of the friendship between Italy and the United States: “Tonight we celebrate the friendships of our two countries, and what has been done over the years, it all belongs to all of you, and to the incredible community of Americans of Italian heritage…. Your love for the United States, and your love for Italy, is absolutely unique.”

The Ambassador then introduced Italy’s Minister of Regional Affairs Francesco Boccia who proclaimed that, “We are delighted that the Region of Molise [is getting] the attention it truly deserves.” He added, “Over the last century, hundreds of thousands of people left the region of Molise to make the United States their new home…tonight represents the moral victory and celebration of the special ties between Molise and the United States.” Minister Boccia closed his remarks by thanking NIAF for its celebration and promotion of the region.

Speaking on behalf of the Region of Honor, President of Molise Donato Toma graciously noted how “thrilling” it was to see so many people at this event in which “so many grew as one by the same touching love story—the U.S. and Italia.” During his remarks, the president also mentioned an expression in Italy that says, “Molise non esiste” (Molise doesn’t exist), referring to the fact that the Region is small and largely overlooked, even by Italians. “We have used this slogan as our punchline to our advantage,” he said. “We like to refer to Molise as small but beautiful…. This year we celebrate our escape from obscurity to the spotlight!”

Serving as the evening’s host, Maria Bartiromo recognized veterans in the audience as well as many special guests, including Ambassador Peter F. Secchia: “Because of his leadership and generosity over the past 20 years, NIAF has been able to send almost a thousand students to Italy to experience an all-expenses-paid trip of a lifetime….”

Following a video about Ambassador Secchia’s life and contributions to the Foundation as the founder of the Voyage of Discovery program, along with touching testimonials from the program’s alumni, Ambassador Secchia said, “You heard some of [the alumni’s] conversations about how they fell in love with their ancient civilization… There have been seven weddings among people who met [on the Voyage of Discovery].” He smiled as he added, “I’m not sure that’s the purpose of the trip but we might get some new members from it.” He closed his remarks reflecting on the impact of the program: “The letters I get and the tears I see when people talk, it makes it all worthwhile. It makes it feel good to give.”

One of the alumnus of the 2019 Voyage of Discovery, Joel Wally, performed a powerful rendition of O Surdato ‘Nnummurato, a favorite of Ambassador Secchia.

NIAF Board Member Kenneth J. Aspromonte announced the new NIAF – George Randazzo Sports Scholarship in memory of George Randazzo, the founder of the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame (NIASHF), who passed away in 2019. Aspromonte then introduced his friend, and a close friend of George Randazzo, MLB Hall of Famer and Los Angeles Dodgers legend Tommy Lasorda.

Lasorda captivated the 1,200 guests in the ballroom: “We are all here for one purpose. I am proud to be Italian… My father came from Italy and I thought he was the greatest man that God ever put on this Earth…. So tonight, sitting here, makes me proud…. We Italians, we must be together. We must do everything we can to make this country better, and we Italians can do it.”

The baseball legend received a standing ovation at the conclusion of his speech which led to an engaging and suave performance by Italian singer-songwriter Alessandro Coli of his latest song (Give Me Your) Permission and the debut of Cherry Pie. Coli collaborated with NIAF this past summer to offer its members a chance to win a free trip to Italy for two for the debut of the former.

Honoree and Mistress of Ceremonies Maria Bartiromo stepped to the podium to introduce the first of the evening’s distinguished honorees, Daniel M. DiLella, President and CEO of Equus Capital Partners and Chairman of USA250, which is planning the 250th anniversary of our country. The Foundation awarded to DiLella the NIAF Leonardo da Vinci Lifetime Achievement Award in Service and Philanthropy. The briefest speech of the evening, DiLella admitted, “I’m usually not lost for words…” as he thanked his family, business partners, Villanova University friends, “and NIAF for giving me the opportunity for accepting this prestigious award.” He only wished, he added, that his parents could’ve been at the Gala because “they would’ve been so proud. They were proud Americans and proud Italian Americans.”

Next, Honoree Vincent A. Forlenza, Chairman and CEO of BD (Becton, Dickinson and Company), received the NIAF Leonardo da Vinci Lifetime Achievement Award in Business: “The NIAF scholarship program is a great cause and it is just fantastic to be here and support that,” he said. Forlenza also spoke of his wife and children, of his family heritage and “strong sense of family” passed down from his immigrant ancestors who arrived here in 1892, and of his grandfather who “loved Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra” and his car.

As Forlenza returned to his seat on the dais, it was time to announce the 2019 Russo Brothers Italian American Film Forum winner. The Forum is a NIAF-Italian Sons and Daughters of America grant initiative that funds filmmakers depicting and exploring the Italian American experience. Basil Russo came to the podium and explained that its purpose “is to create a film library that will forever preserve the sacrifices our ancestors made on behalf of our country and the contributions they have made to our country so that future generations of our families and our country will never forget who we are and what we have accomplished as a people.”

The three 2019 finalists were: John Peter Didato’s Ciao, Sesame Street!, Sandra Jean Grasso’s Heirloom and Sim Smiley’s Maximum John. The ballroom lights dimmed for short clips from the three finalists and then via satellite, Joe and Anthony Russo announced this year’s winning filmmaker and film: Ciao Sesame Street! by John Peter Didato.

The next Honoree, Richard L. Trumka, President of AFL-CIO, who was awarded the NIAF Leonardo da Vinci Lifetime Achievement Award to the American Worker, thanked the Foundation for the honor and added that “being here tonight, surrounded by my family and some of my closest friends, and getting to share a delicious meal, that is the essence of being Italian American.”

Trumka  also shared a poignant and amusing tale of his grandmother’s saying “sta andando tutto bene” (“from everything comes some good”) and spoke of how grateful he is for having his wife, and children, and grandchildren, and his family and friends, and a job in which he can really make a difference…. and every once in a while,” he added with a grin, “branzino with a side of linguini.”

Following Trumka, NIAF awarded Honoree Paul A. Tufano, Chairman & CEO of The AmeriHealth Caritas Family of Companies the NIAF Leonardo da Vinci Lifetime Achievement Award in Business. Tufano told a touching story about how after he argued a case before the Supreme Court one time, his family present, he asked his father and his uncle what they thought. They said they had stopped listening when the Chief Justice spoke Tufano’s name, the family name, because their thoughts immediately tuned to what their father must be thinking up in heaven.

Tufano also spoke of his work on behalf of the poor and disabled…something he also thinks his grandfather would be proud of. In thanking his family, friends and colleagues who have helped him make a difference in his career, he finished by thanking Francesco Tufano, his grandfather. “This award is not for you, this award is because of you.”

After award-winning singer and songwriter Chiara Izzi wowed the audience with her smooth melodic voice performing two jazz pieces, NIAF Board Member and Gala Auction Chairman Dr. John Rosa conducted the evening’s live auction raising tens of thousands of dollars in support of NIAF’s core mission. Live Auction packages included a 10 day trip to Rome, Florence and the Amalfi Coast sponsored by Nero Hotels; a five day deluxe round trip with two Alitalia flights and included stay at the Hassler Penthouse in Rome and the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria in Sorrento; custom Kiton his-and-her suits and two-night stay in the Conrad New York Midtown in New York City; and an exquisite 15-liter bottle of Champagne from Nero Group to ring in the New Year.

The last of the evening’s honorees was Maria Bartiromo, NIAF Board Member, two-time Emmy Award winner, and anchor of Mornings with Maria and Maria Bartiromo’s Wall Street on Fox Business Network, and Sunday Morning Futures on Fox News Channel, who graciously received the NIAF Leonardo da Vinci Lifetime Achievement Award in Broadcasting and Journalism. Bartiromo’s speech reflected upon her roots: “It speaks directly to my upbringing, it speaks directly to what I’ve learned in and who I am after a lifetime of being Italian American and growing up with the influence of my hard-working parents and the influence of my grandmother from Agrigento and my grandfather from Nocera watching them work so hard….the values that we all share and the values that we all view as so important, hard work, doing the right thing, love and loyalty of family, faith in God….I truly have lived the American dream, I know it. My thanks to NIAF for spotlighting the values that we honor and deem so important.”

Following her speech, The Sicilian Tenors wrapped up the Gala Awards Dinner with a lively performance singing fan favorites Volare and That’s Amore.

As every year, the After Hours Party in the hotel’s Marquee Lounge, brought the best and worst of karaoke talent and kept the dancefloor into the early morning. Clemente Bakery from South Hackensack, N.J., kindly provided cake to late night party.

The night of Gala Receptions and the Awards Dinner were preceded by two days of Italian and Italian American events, many of them free and open to the public.

Thursday, October 31

On Thursday evening, members of the NIAF Board were joined at the Washington power restaurant Café Milano, in the heart of Georgetown, by members of the Italian American White House Staff Association and the Italian American Congressional Delegation and Staff Association as well as Gala Honorees and VIPs at an exclusive reception and dinner to honor Italy’s Ambassador to the United States Armando Varricchio for his service..

With Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Patrick Pizzella, Andrew Giuliani and Lou Barletta, among others. Kellyanne Conway, Reps. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) and Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.) delivered moving remarks about what it means to be Italian American and the Ambassador’s distinguished service to Italy and United States’ relations. The evening became even more special when Deana Martin and Lena Prima shared their musical talent inherited by their fathers Dean Martin and Louis Prima by singing classic Italian American tunes that are loved by all.

Friday, November 1

On Friday afternoon, 16 college students participating in the NIAF on Campus Conference met at the Omni Shoreham Hotel with NIAF Board members and NIAF da Vinci Council members to discuss strategy and network expansion plans to bring more Italian American students and Italian Studies students into the program in 2020.

Friday evening officially kicked off with the NIAF Young Professional Aperitivo. Nearly 200 young professionals mixed and mingled with Aperol Spritzes, Italian wine and Peroni beer in hand while DJ Donald Syriana played a sophisticated soundtrack of world lounge and house grooves. Attendees took advantage of the photo booth and savored an endless supply of delicious Italian appetizers and creamy gelato from none other than Dolci Gelati.

The evening progressed with An Evening with Mary Ann Esposito, an exclusive Molise-inspired dining experience (the Braciole di Maiale and fusilli were amazing! Ditto for the pear in wine sauce) with Celebrity Chef Mary Ann Esposito. Each guest received a signed copy of her latest book: Ciao Italia: My Lifelong Food Adventures in Italy. During the dinner, Esposito revealed her fondness for Molise, sharing that “Molise may be the second smallest region in Italy, but the food is second to none.”

Exclusive to those at this intimate dinner was an irresistible live auction item offering a luxurious three-night stay for two at the Grand Hotel Ambasciatori in Sorrento along with a three course dinner at the Hotel’s decadent restaurant and two roundtrip business class flights with Alitaila from the U.S. to Naples. The deluxe package went home with NIAF Board Member Louis E. Tosi.

Saturday, November 2

Once again, NIAF opened the doors to its Expo Italiana, the largest annual Italian festival in the Nation’s Capital from 9 a.m. –4 p.m., on Saturday. Free and open to the public, the Expo attracted more than 2,000 visitors with more than 40 vendors, including 20 exhibitors directly from Molise. Free samples were the standard of the day—with visitors tasting everything from finest wines, to DelGrosso’s always anticipated “meatball martinis,” to Lavazza espresso, Peroni beer, Dolci Gelati’s crazy-delicious gelato, melt-in-your-mouth thinly sliced mortadella and prosciutto from Parmacotto, freebies treats from Ferrero, and Alitalia’s stylish and free travel products. Other booths included Lena Prima and her latest album Prima la Famiglia to sign, Jewelry Link by Melanie, Piemme Food srl, Toscana Cigars, Stella Lucente LLC, a book signing with Mary Ann Esposito, Chazz Palminteri’s BiVi Sicilian vodka, and a Vespa display to take photos with courteous of the Vespa Committee Washington DC Inc., and many others.

Meanwhile, several conferences and sessions took place in the Exhibit Hall, including the Medical Conference on “Medicine, Media and Patients”; a film screening of the film My Country; a special presentation about the chief carver of Mount Rushmore Luigi Del Bianco; learning basic Italian with the Italian Cultural Society of Washington D.C.; a lesson on how to make gelato and taste Dolci Gelati’s finest flavors; a screening the finalists’ documentaries competing in the Russo Brothers Italian American Film Forum; a session about Leonardo’s legacy and One Health Center of Excellence that emphasized the importance of research networks between Italy and the United States; an introduction to Molise in “Discover One of Italy’s Hidden Gems” with Live and Learn Italian’s founder; and a session called “A Taste of Molise” with award-winning author and Chef Amy Riolo and Italian Sensory Experience’s Founder Antonio Iuliano.

Other highlights included the Washington, D.C.-based band i-Italians that performed throughout the day playing a mix of American and Italian music, as well as the annual and remarkable free Italian lunch provided by Clemente Bakery and Deli from South Hackensack, N.J., that again this year had Expo visitors lined up and hungry.

Sunday November 3

On Sunday morning, Ambassador Secchia took a guided tour of NIAF headquarters with NIAF Director of Special Programs Gabriella Mileti to tour the NIAF Museum on Italian Immigration that was installed last fall. In the mid-1990s, Ambassador Secchia purchased the naming rights to the headquarters in an effort to pay off the mortgage and thereby the building bears his name in his honor.

Overall, Gala Weekend attendees raved about the entire experience, so begin planning now to join us next year, October 30 – November 1, 2020! —Natalie Wulderk