Obama praises Italian leader for 'bold' leadership

WASHINGTON (AP) — Seeking to boost a close ally, President Barack Obama threw his support today behind efforts that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is taking to overhaul that country's political system and enhance its economy, saying that Renzi's "bold" and "progressive" leadership was exactly what Europe needs at a time of crisis and soul-searching.

Obama invited Renzi to the White House for the final official visit and state dinner of his presidency, telling hundreds of spectators at the arrival ceremony that "we saved the best for last."

Throughout the day's events, the two leaders recited a long list of issues on which they agree. They want to speed economic growth through investments in infrastructure and to move forward with a sweeping trade agreement between the U.S. and the European Union. They also spoke of the importance of strengthening the NATO alliance and the need to maintain sanctions against Russia in place until that nation and Ukraine implement commitments under a ceasefire agreement brokered early last year.

Beyond action on specific issues, Obama clearly sought to use the symbolism behind today's visit to show support for a leader that Obama views as one of the most promising young politicians in Europe. The star treatment came just a few weeks before voters in Italy take up a governing referendum that Renzi has spearheaded. He has said he would resign if voters reject it.