The 46th NIAF Anniversary Gala in Review

On Saturday, October 23, 2021, the National Italian American Foundation hosted its 46th Anniversary Gala at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.—and what a memorable Gala it was!

As NIAF’s first return to an in-person celebration of our Italian heritage and culture since the Covid pandemic forced a totally virtual Gala in 2020, this exclusive, limited-seating event attracted 450 loyal and enthusiastic VIPs, honorees, sponsors and guests who embraced seeing old friends again and making new ones in support of the Foundation’s important mission. (In our interest of the safety of all Gala guests, attendees were required to pass through a Covid Check Point and provide full-vaccination or negative Covid-test proof to enter.)

This year’s Gala featured inspirational and heartfelt messages from five distinguished honorees who were saluted for their remarkable achievements, as well as invaluable insights from public figures and performances by legendary performers.

Following acclaimed Italian tenor Marco Fiorante’s singing of the national anthems of both the United States and Italy, and an invocation by Monsignor Peter  Vaghi, pastor of the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Md., NIAF Gala Chairman Joseph Lonardo welcomed guests with a rousing “Buona sera!”

And, then, detailing the importance of the evening’s fundraising for the Foundation’s educational mission, he said, “I would like to express our gratitude for you joining us tonight!”

Next came an engaging video message from Jill Biden, the first Italian American First Lady in U.S. history!

“One of my favorite memories from childhood is the warm smell of Italian bread toast that always woke me up at my grandparents’ house. I loved the ribbons of homemade pasta hanging in the kitchen…,” recalled the First Lady, whose grandfather emigrated from Sicily to Ellis Island in 1900.

“My Italian roots have always been a part of who I am…..the values I learned from my grandparents—kindness, generosity, family loyalty, passion, and embracing joy—helped make me who I am today….The National Italian American Foundation helps keep that heritage alive. I’m proud of what they are doing to invest in the next generation of Italian Americans….”

Photography by Andy DelGiudice
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Starting modestly with “It’s hard to follow the First Lady…,” NIAF’s President Robert Allegrini addressed Gala guests with the importance of the evening and the difficulties of starting again after the pandemic, saying “Yet, here we are, as Italian Americans have always done, we’ll figure out a way to make it happen….”

NIAF Executive Vice Chairman John Calvelli took the podium to tell the story of  NIAF’s Region of Honor program, which this year is honoring Italy’s Region of Abruzzo. He also had the honor of introducing Italy’s newly appointed and first female Ambassador to the United States Mariangela Zappia.

“I am so honored to be the Ambassador to the United States,” Zappia said. “And this is a wonderful crowd coming from all over the United States.”

Her charm immediately winning over the audience, she added, “Today, we also pay tribute to the unique relationship between the United States and Italy,” before  yielding the podium to Italy’s Minister of Economic Development Giancarlo Giorgetti.

Touching on many topics, from “What would we be without Christopher Columbus?” to the close relationship between the United States and Italy, Giorgetti said, “America would not be what it is today without the contributions of Italian Americans…. I really feel like I’m at home tonight.”

And so did all of the Gala guests as conversations grew louder throughout the ballroom. Following the antipasto of cured Italian meats, cheeses and olives, and the first course of risotto with porcini mushrooms, guests were shown a beautiful video introduction to the Region of Abruzzo and a videotaped message from the President of Abruzzo Marco Marsilio, who could not attend in person due to Covid restrictions (instead the Abruzzo delegation is coming next Spring for the New York Gala).

“It is a great privilege for Abruzzo to have been designated as the Region of Honor 2021 and we thank you from our heart for this recognition: It fills us with pride, in the awareness of the importance of the work that the Foundation carries out in enhancing the image of Italy and the Italian cultural heritage in the United States….”

And, then, the awaited moment when the incomparable NIAF Gala host Joe Piscopo of SNL fame took the stage as only Joe Piscopo can, nailing the classic Sinatra song Come Fly With Me as he descended into the audience: “We are back,” he announced to loud applause. “After a difficult time.”

Thanking the Gala’s major sponsors, including the Region of Abruzzo, Interstate Commercial, Ferrero, Gabelli Funds, Intesa Sanpaolo, Jefferson Health, Leonardo Holding, Nero Hotels, and Piaggio, Piscopo introduced the evening’s line up of remarkable honorees.

First honoree: the talented Enrico Casarosa, director of the Pixar Animation Studios 2021 hit computer-animated fantasy film Luca, a film about an Italian boy, considered to be a 2022 Oscar contender. Before accepting his award virtually from the big-screen, Casarosa’s wife and daughter, Pixar’s President Jim Morris, and even The Walt Disney Company Executive Chairman of Robert Iger, among others, expressed their congratulations (virtually).

The NIAF 46th Anniversary Gala Sponsors

Recalling his own professional assent and explaining how Luca reflected some of his own childhood experiences, he said he hopes that the film ”brings a ray of sunshine in these difficult times,” before concluding, “This is mind-blowing, a real honor.”

Honoree Giuseppe Bono followed Casarosa. accepting the NIAF Leonardo da Vinci Award for International Business, the soft-spoken, compelling CEO of Fincantieri S.p.A., one of the world’s largest ship-building groups, based in Trieste, Italy, Bono said: “I never thought that my name, me…who was once a small boy of simple beginnings in Calabria, would be mentioned in the same sentence with that of Leonardo da Vinci.”

Describing his childhood and his mother’s lesson that “education is the path of opportunity,” then his climb up the leadership ladder at Fincantieri, Bono concluded: “I want to thank the Foundation for bringing us together…strengthening the bonds of friendship…of allies…of business…and of family. I know that some people refer to the ‘American Dream.’ I can tell you that we, Fincantieri, we are living the Italian American dream. May you as well.”

Guests were then treated to an entertainment break with award-winning Italian singer-songwriter Chiara Izzi singing Addije Amore (Amara Terra Mia) and Nessuno ti giuro nessuno.

As the dinner’s second course of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo braised beef with oven-roasted potatoes and carrots was served, video clips from Luca appeared on the ballroom’s giant screens followed by a showcase of the evening’s sponsors and images and a video presentation of the Region of Abruzzo.

Following a trailer of the upcoming Mother Cabrini film, to a ballroom filled with applause, NIAF Chairman Emeritus Patricia de Stacy Harrison and NIAF Vice Chair Anita Bevacqua McBride announced that NIAF was pledging a $100,000 grant to help fund the making of a film about the first American saint.

A return to the evening’s honorees started with a virtual message from award-winning actor Stanley Tucci, whose films and recent CNN series Searching for Italy have endeared him to the Italian American community and the world. Tucci began by joking that the Italian Embassy in London, the city where he lives, had recently confirmed he is, in fact, Italian. “So I don’t have to pretend anymore,” he said smiling, “but seriously, thank you so much for this honor… I appreciate everything that NIAF does in support of Italian cultural heritage.”

Honoree John Silvestri, chairman of multi-faceted real estate development firm Interstate Commercial, of Mount Laurel, N.J., mesmerized the Gala audience with his story of the day he told his 92-year-old mother (she was at the Gala!) in her kitchen that NIAF was going to honor him. She was so impressed that Tony Bennett and Stanley Tucci were being honored! As Silvestri was about to leave, she finally told him she was proud of him….and sent him home with a Saran Wrap-covered bowl of the sausage and peppers she had just made that morning. “An Italian mother telling her son she’s proud is as good as it gets,” concluded Silvestri.

As dessert (soffione Abruzzesi) and coffee were served, Joe Piscopo returned to the stage to introduce Basil Russo, father of high-powered Hollywood Italian American filmmakers Anthony and Joseph Russo who would introduce (virtually) the winners of The Russo Brothers Italian American Film Forum. A joint program by NIAF and the Italian Sons and Daughters of America (ISDA), its grants each year award $8,000 to several filmmakers exploring the Italian American experience.

Winners for 2020 (which was postponed until now due to the pandemic) and 2021 were: Amy Campione’s film Yes Chef, the story of an award-winning chef struggling to define her identity; and Zach and Naomi Baliva’s film Potentially Dangerous, which tells the tragic “enemy alien” story of Italians living in America during WWII. Receiving an honorable mention was Charles Geno Marsala’s film Who Killa da Chief? about who might have killed the police chief whose death led to the unjust lynching of 11 Italian immigrants in New Orleans in 1891.

Then came the always anticipated live auction items when Joe Piscopo and Deana Martin, famed entertainer and daughter of Dean Martin, took the stage to fire up lively bidding on several magnificent items. First was a two-night stay in the elegant Caruso Suite at the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria (yes, Enrico Caruso’s personal suite) in Sorrento. Then came bidding on a masterpiece limited-series KEFA “Petrus” watch, a timepiece and investment. And, finally, a 14-day Nero Hotels grand tour (including airfare) of Italy from the Minareto Hotel in Siracusa, to the Therasia Hotel in Vulcano in the Aeolian Islands, to the Sikelia Hotel in Pantelleria!

Heading into the Gala Awards Dinner finale was an exceptional yet tearful moment when the Foundation awarded its NIAF Leonardo da Vinci Lifetime Achievement Award in Music to the iconic, legendary, American treasure, Tony Bennett. Now struggling with Alzheimer’s, which he has made public to increase awareness of this terrible disease, Mr. Bennett appeared on video on the big screens grateful for the honor. But not before videos of the applause-stirring Andrea Bocelli and Al Pacino congratulated the most famous living crooner of our times. And then, Tony Bennett made each guest thankful for his illustrious and long career by singing Our Love is Here to Stay. Thank you, Mr. Tony Bennett.

Putting the finishing touches on a spectacular Gala Awards Diner, Joe Piscopo and Deana Martin crooned Volare and Something Stupid. In the aftermath, guests gradually cleared from the ballroom and headed to the nearby After Party where conversations and celebrations continued until midnight.

But wait! There’s more. On the Friday evening before the Anniversary Gala, following a reception at Villa Firenze, the magnificent D.C. home of Italy’s Ambassador to the United States, the Gala’s VIPs enjoyed another lovely and now traditional private dinner at the famous Washington powerhouse restaurant Café Milano in Georgetown, sponsored by Leonardo.

Highlighted by remarks from Italy’s new Ambassador to the United States Mariangela Zappia, the evening was pure pleasure, no pressure, with VIPs from Italy and the United States—hosted by NIAF’s Board members. The exceptional dinner featured a primo of paccheri valentino, a secondo of Waygu beef cheeks, then tiramisu for dessert. During the live auction, up for bids was an incredible stay at the Grand Hotel Ambasciatori and Grand Hotel Royal in Sorrento that one lucky bidder went home with to make some travel plans.

The Café Milano evening made for a perfect prelude to an amazing Anniversary Gala the next day. Grazie to everyone who participated and made this a memorable Gala weekend!