If everyone who on Saturday night promised Chrysler board chairman Lee Iacocca he would buy a Chrysler were to make good on his word, the struggling company would be first on the Fortune 500 list in no time.

Along with those promises from just about everybody who came up to say hello, Iacocca received a hero's welcome, as did Yale University president A. Bartlett Giamatti and actress Sophia Loren, the honored guests at the Fourth Biennial Tribute Dinner of the National Italian American Foundation. They were joined by more than 2,000 Italian-American leaders of business, education, politics and the arts.

"I'm gonna bring down a little lady I want you to meet," a broadly grinning Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, announced to Iacocca at a pre-dinner reception. "You escorting Sophia Loren?" asked Iacocca with a wink, causing a ripple of excited murmurs to go through the VIP crowd.

Suddenly, the black-tie sea parted, flashbulbs flared in blinding unison and there she was, nodding regally in an oh-so-low-cut black-and-silver spangled gown and huge, glittering earrings. As Loren, 48 slipped into the receiving line betweein Iacocca and Giamatti, the crowd and the paparazzi moved in, brandishing autograph books, cocktail napkins and anything else signable. "She's a real star -- no jeans for her," pointed out one woman to her neighbor.

The Main Event:

"Paisani figli d'Italia -- sons and daughters of Italy, we welcome you!" said foundation chairman Jeno Paulucci, founder of Jeno's frozen pizza and Chung King Chinese Foods, as he opened the awards presentation after a dinner of filet mignon and zucchini with mushrooms in the Washington Hilton's vast International Ballroom.

He greeted the crowd after soprano Anna Moffo, whose husband, former RCA board chairman Robert Sarnoff, sat nearby and sang the Italian and American national anthems. Moffo inspired a rash of unsolicited but vigorous choral support from a few in the audience; one woman even got her own round of applause from those seated around her.

"I know you all join me in sincere disappointment at the absence of President and Mrs. Reagan," an obviously miffed Paulucci told the crowd. Reagan was scheduled to be the main speaker at the dinner, but canceled last week. Both Reagan and former President Carter made appearances at the 1980 dinner.

"If you really want to know what has kept Italian-Americans from top government posts . . . it is because we have been a sleeping glant whose silence has been deafening. And we're not going to be taken for granted any longer." Paulucci also announced that earlier, at a fundraising luncheon, $785,000 was raised in less than three hours for the foundation's endowment fund.

Accepting his career achievement award in business and industry, Iacocca spoke of the Centennial Commission he heads to restore the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. "One out of every eight persons who came to Ellis Island was Italian," Iacocca said, and like many of the evening's speakers, Iacocca spoke of his parents' arrival in America. "My father came here from Italy at age 12. The only thing he knew for sure was that the world was round, and that was because Christopher Columbus, another Italian kid, told him it was so."

Giamatti, 44, one of the youngest presidents of an American university, accepted the career award for education and stressed "the centrality of education to the contribution of Italian-Americans to America's cultural heritage.: He also mentioned his father, an immigrant who became a scholar in Renaissance literature at Harvard and Yale.

Loren, introduced by Rep. Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.) as "splendid and glorious," removed her glasses to accept her award for career achievement in the arts and told the crowd, "I don't really know if I deserve this award. You know, a career in the arts is filled with success, but also with struggle, frustration and sometimes very bitter experiences."

A list of guests on the dais would have read like an Italian-American Who's Who. Included were Italian Ambassador Rinaldo Petrignani and his wife Anne Merete; Archbishop Pio Laghi, the apostolic delegate from Rome to the United States; National Italian American Foundation president Frank D. Stella; former HUD assistant secretary Msgr. Geno Baroni; and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who, Valenti pointed out, has an Italian mother behind that Irish name.

Among others attending were Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.)., CIA director William Casey, former attorney general Benjamin Civiletti and Fiat president Umberto Agnelli, who Valenti joked "came over to check out what Chrysler is up to."

Valenti took some good-natured ribbing from former Massachusetts governor John Volpe, who was also American ambassador to Italy. He advised Valenti, "If you really want to be an ambassador, Jack, you better build up a pile of money before you go."

Snapshots:

"It's interesting that out of the six most popular Vietnam books, three are by Italian-Americans," said John Del Vecchio, author of the recently published Vietnam novel "The Thirteenth Valley." Del Vecchio, along with authors Philip Caputo and Al Santoli, who have also published Vietnam-inspired books, was honored Friday by the foundation. "Maybe it's because growing up with a subtle discrimination, not so much in our generation, but in our parents' and grandparents' generations, has made us more sensitive to all ethnic groups," said Del Vecchio, while waiting for dinner to be served.

"This conference is also about breaking down stereotypes," he continued. "Maybe there are stereotypes you don't want to get rid of the stereotype that Italians are gangsters -- let's keep the idea that Italians are artistic."

Around the crowd, there were lots of hugs and kisses on both cheeks, and dress ranged from the most formal black tie and black organdy evening gowns to elaborately brocaded tuxedoes. One woman came in a red sequined gown with matching, sequined flapper cap.

"Msgr. Baroni told me at lunch about when he visited South Africa," said Sally Sammartino, who with her husband Peter, a dais guest, co-founded Fairleigh Dickinson University in Rutherford, N.J. "This South African man said to him, 'Monsignor, you're the first Italian I have ever met -- are you a member of the Mafia?'

"Really! This is what we have to stop -- that damned 'Godfather,' excuse me. There's organized crime in every ethnic group. The English had their pirates," said Sammartino, wearing a small gold decoration from the Republic of Italy for her achievement in education. "The idea here is to have a presence in Washington, so politicians see thqtpeople of Italian origin do vote -- they are intelligent, they are achievers."