President Obama threw his support behind attempts by the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, to overhaul his country’s political system and lift its economy, saying Renzi’s “bold”, “progressive” leadership was exactly what Europe needed at a time of soul-searching.Obama invited Renzi to the White House for the final official visit and state dinner of his presidency, telling hundreds of spectators on Tuesday at the arrival ceremony: “We saved the best for last.”Renzi’s star treatment came just a few weeks before Italians vote in a referendum on constitutional reform that he has spearheaded. He has said he will resign if voters reject it. Renzi declined to answer whether he would follow through on that statement if the referendum is voted down, but Obama spoke for him: “I am rooting for success, but I think you should hang around for a while no matter what.”Obama gave Renzi the full White House red-carpet treatment. The sound of herald trumpets and a full dose of pomp and pageantry on the South Lawn were orchestrated to welcome him – one of the few world leaders to receive such a reception from the White House.After each leader spoke, they hugged briefly and patted each other on the back.“I mean, look at him,” Obama gushed. “He’s young, handsome. He’s put forth a vision of progress that’s not rooted in people’s fears, but rather in their hopes.”Renzi, seemingly in a nod to the divisive presidential election in the US next month and Britain’s decision to leave the EU, said: “I think there are a lot of people who think that politics is only about screaming, fighting each other. Hate creates division. You are different, Mr President. We are different.”The two leaders moved from the arrival ceremony to the Oval Office for private meetings. They emerged for a joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden and again sought to emphasise the strong relations between their two nations. “In good times and in bad, we count on each other,” Obama said.Meanwhile, Renzi said he had copied Obama by creating a “jobs act” modelled on the stimulus legislation that Obama pushed through when he came into office. Renzi said the initiative had created many jobs in economically challenged Italy, saying it was “at least a first step to leave our difficult situation”.“I want to thank the United States of America for the extraordinary support for the battle that Italy is having in our country, within Europe, to affirm a paradigm of growth and not only of austerity at all levels,” Renzi said.The arrival ceremony marked the beginning of a daylong visit that was due to be capped with a lavish state dinner in a tent on the South Lawn for about 400 guests. Celebrity chef Mario Batali created the menu, and singer Gwen Stefani was due to top the after-dinner entertainment bill.During the arrival ceremony, Obama spoke about how Italian-Americans have helped shape the US. He said their experience was often one of arriving with nothing, of overcoming prejudice and discrimination, and of relying on faith and the love of family to succeed. Obama said that experience reveals a “truth we must never forget, and that is that America was built by immigrants, America is stronger because of immigrants, America is great because of immigrants”.