On Tuesday, the president and first lady will welcome Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to the White House for what is likely to be the last state dinner of the Obama administration. It’s bound to be a big, glittery affair: Celebrity chef Mario Batali will be in the kitchen, and singer Gwen Stefani will perform after dinner.
At the center of it all: Renzi, 41, the youngest prime minister since Italy became a unified nation in 1861. Haven’t heard of him? You should — he’s charismatic, ambitious and a master of social media. Here’s everything you need to know about one of Europe’s rising stars:
Nickname: Renzi is known as “Il Rottamatore,” which translates roughly as “the Scrapper” or the “Demolition Man,” for his willingness to toss old programs and policies on the trash heap. He’s bold, impatient and not afraid to make enemies to move his country forward. “It’s when I have everyone against me,” he told Vogue in an interview this month, “that’s when I have the most fun.”
Renzi has been compared to both Machiavelli and “House of Cards” president Francis Underwood. The Florentine Machiavelli, he told students last year, has a bad rap: He was actually a great leader in Italian history. Underwood, on the other hand, is an exaggerated fictional character.
President Obama, for one, is a fan. “I have been very impressed with the energy and the vision and the reforms that he is pursuing to unleash the potential of the Italian people and the Italian economy,” he said after a White House meeting with Renzi last year. “His willingness to challenge the status quo and to look to the future has made him a leading voice in Europe.”
How he got the job: Renzi wasn’t elected to his current role. He became prime minister in February 2014 after a bloodless internal coup in his party.
He rose through the ranks of Italy’s Democratic Party, a center-left coalition, and was elected secretary three years ago. Not long after, he pressured the sitting prime minister — unpopular and politically weak — to resign so that Renzi could create a new government. His cabinet, the youngest in Italy’s history, has an equal number of male and female ministers.
Political BFFs: He is on good terms with Germany’s Angela Merkel, has a transatlantic bromance with Canada’s Justin Trudeau and is a supporter of Hillary Clinton.
Backstory: Born in Florence on Jan. 11, 1975, Renzi grew up in Rignano sull’Arno, a small town just a few miles away. He was the second of four children and spent 15 years as a Boy Scout — and loved it so much that his kids are now into Scouting, too. He graduated from the University of Florence with a law degree. His father was a marketing consultant and a local elected official; Renzi briefly worked in the family marketing business before he was bitten by the political bug. After heading the provincial government, he was elected mayor of Florence at age 34.
Religion: Catholic. And he’s a big fan of Pope Francis, but you probably guessed that.
Family: In 1999, Renzi married Agnese Landini, a language teacher at a classical public high school. The couple have three children: sons Francesco and Emanuele and daughter Ester. They live near Florence; Renzi commutes to Rome for work and returns home on weekends.
Style: Renzi now wears suits in public (he had to give up his signature leather jackets, which drew comparisons with the Fonz) but he’s strictly a white shirt, jeans and sneakers guy in private.
Obsession: Twitter — every day at least one tweet, usually many more — and other social media. “Some say no to everything,” he tweeted last week after Rome pulled its bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. (Renzi’s political rival, 38-year-old Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi, said the city needs the money for public services.)
Other obsession: ACF Fiorentina, the soccer club that represents Florence. Renzi is a knowledgeable and opinionated fan — as a teenager, he was a referee for an amateur soccer league. He likes to bike and, if he can find the time, run marathons.
Can he buy a vowel?: At 19, Renzi was a contestant on Italy’s version of “Wheel of Fortune” and appeared on five episodes until he wrongly guessed “navi” (ships) instead of “neve” (snow) — a mistake that bugs him to this day. The show’s host teased him mercilessly, but Renzi walked away with more than 48 million lire, about 25,000 euros or $27,500 today.
Political future: Renzi’s immediate task is to turn around his country’s economy. He has called for a risky referendum Dec. 4 on proposed changes to the constitution that would cut the number of senators and reduce the power and privileges of political institutions. The state dinner — with all the ceremonial bells and whistles — is a splashy vote of confidence from the Obama administration.
If Italians vote to approve the changes, Renzi will be one of the most powerful men in Europe. If the referendum fails, he says he’ll leave politics and become a professor.
“I’ll go home and do something else with my life,” he told Vogue. “I’m 41; I can do anything, with a smile.”
Which sounds like something a master politician would say, doesn’t it?