Following an introduction by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Obama told the crowd at the National Italian American Foundation gala at the Washington Hilton the United States "would not be what it is today without the unique contributions and the uncommon pride of Italian Americans."
Like immigrants from other countries, the president said, Italians came to America "in search of opportunity."
"And it wasn't always easy. Italians weren't always welcome," Obama said. "And when we think about today's immigrants, we have to remind ourselves that those of us who now feel comfortable in our American identity, that that wasn't always the case in the past.
"Everybody in this room, just about everybody, has an ancestor or lots of ancestors who fit that story of transplanted roots that somehow grew in American soil; of families that struggled and sacrificed so that our families might know something better.
"So that's what binds us together. That is what has always made our country unique. We've always been and we will always be a nation of immigrants from all over the world. And out of many, somehow we're able to forge ourselves into one people; and this is the place where the highest hopes can be reached, and the deepest and most sincere dreams can be made real."
Obama noted "these are tough times right now."
"And for many, the dream that brought so many Italian-Americans to these shores feels like it's slipping away," he said..
"But while these times are hard, we have to remind ourselves they're not as hard as those that earlier generations faced. And the legacy of their courage and their commitment and their determination and their generosity and their willingness to think about the next generation -- we have to be just as passionate and just as selfless as they were to keep that dream alive, and make sure our children inherit futures that are big and bright, and that this country is as generous as it's always been.
And that's what we have to commit to ourselves tonight.'
Notable deaths of 2014 [PHOTOS]