By James Mackenzie
MILAN (Reuters) - Three weeks before the Milan Expo opens on May 1, the site of the showpiece event is still a mass of trucks raising dust and workers in hard hats racing to finish building after delays, graft and cost overruns.
Italy has had four different governments in the seven years since Milan was chosen to follow the 2010 Shanghai Expo and has undergone its most severe economic crisis since World War Two.
But 40-year-old Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is counting on the event to reinforce fragile signs of recovery and help his drive to put a more modern face on Italy after the years of recession.
Officials are counting on some 20 million visitors to the six month-long exhibition of products and technologies from around the world. They hope it will bring in 10 billion euros ($10.75 billion), half of it from foreign visitors.
Some 9 million tickets have already been sold, a third of them outside Italy, for an event seeking to broaden its appeal with interactive exhibits such as a supermarket of the future, cultural events and shows at an arena and an artificial lake.
"Expo will be the litmus test for the great ambitions which Italy has," Renzi said in a speech in Milan last month to promote the event. "With the Expo, we'll be able to see what Italy will be in the coming years."
Intended as a celebration of Milan's openness to the world and an exploration of new approaches to sustainable food, the event has so far stood out for the chronic corruption and waste that have blighted public works projects in Italy for decades.
Several top officials, including the Expo's former public procurement manager, were arrested last year and the whole event was placed under the oversight of the national anti-bribery authority in a bid to ensure transparency.
The Italian pavilion, a centerpiece of the event, was originally expected to cost 63 million euros ($67.69 million) but will end up costing 92 million and may not be completed in time. A number of transport projects planned to accompany Expo will also not be ready.
A defendant who opened fire in a Milan court last week, killing three people including a judge, also underlined the potential security problems around a major event of this size.
Buffeted by the scandals and facing disputes with architects and building contractors, Expo Commissioner Giuseppe Sala says construction work at the 110-hectare (272 acre) greenfield site on the outskirts of Milan will be essentially complete by opening day.
"I am realistically confident about the work we're doing but I am surprised and sometimes a bit disconcerted by the climate which has developed," he told reporters in Milan earlier this month, denying press reports that organizers would be forced to hide embarrassing gaps with camouflage panels.
"When has it ever been the case for a project like an Expo or Olympic Games, that all the building work has been finished 30 days before the opening?" he said. "If we end up looking bad, the fault will be mine. The government and local partners have done everything they should."
In all, 145 countries are taking part but China, a growing presence in the Italian economy following a spree of acquisitions ranging from luxury yacht maker Ferretti to tyre maker Pirelli, will be particularly well represented.
As well as a 5,000 square meter official pavilion, there are separate halls for property developer Vanke and other Chinese corporations. A million tickets have already been sold in China, adding to a rising flow of Chinese visitors to Italy.
"A Milan delegation went to China two months ago and was given a rapturous welcome," said Claudio Artusi, who is coordinating Milan's plans for events across the city.
"Getting visas is a bit of a bottleneck, but the Chinese are keen to have the chance of explaining the country to those who don’t know it."
In the noise and confusion of the building site, it is still hard to picture how it will all look, although the intricate woodwork of the Japanese pavilion and the futuristic swoop of France's hall suggest an eye-catching architectural display.
Visitors will see exhibits on "feeding the planet" with plant samples and technology, while dozens of restaurants will give a taste of various national cuisines including Italian specialties from the upmarket delicatessen chain Eataly.
But Expo will also have plenty of room for the mass-produced food industry. Both Coca-Cola and McDonald's are hosting pavilions, fuelling worries that the green-tinged rhetoric of "sustainability" will hide a familiar big-money business agenda.
A "No Expo" movement is already planning protests for the May 1 opening, and even away from anti-globalization groups there has been criticism about the capacity of a mega-spectacle like Expo to promote more eco-friendly agriculture.
Slow Food, a campaign group which has done much to promote sustainable and traditional foods, is taking part to press its message against waste and over-industrialized production, but it remains skeptical about many aspects of the event.
"It was absurd to have used 1 million square meters of ground that was not cemented over, that was still fertile, to construct the Expo site," said Roberto Burdese, head of the group's Italian section.
"But you can't leave an empty seat at the discussion table. We've decided to be there but it was a very difficult decision."
($1 = 0.9307 euros)
(Additional reporting by Stephen Jewkes, Ilaria Polleschi; editing by Philippa Fletcher)