European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said Italians need to work harder, be less corrupt and stop blaming the EU for the problems of the country's poor south.
The controversial comments were immediately followed by a demand by European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, an Italian, for a denial from Juncker, warning on Twitter that his words would be "unacceptable" if true.
Tajani did not specify which comments he was referring to but Juncker said only a few sentences about Italy on Thursday during a question-and-answer session at a conference on the future of Europe in Brussels.
Asked what Europe could do to help young people in regions like the south of Italy, Juncker said he was "in deep love" with the country but added: "I no longer accept that everything which is going wrong in South of Italy... is explained by the fact that the EU or the European Commission would not do enough."
"Italians have to take care of the poor regions of Italy. That means more work, less corruption, seriousness," he said.
He urged Italy not to "play this game" of holding the EU responsible, adding: "Nations first, Europe second."
Far-right leader Matteo Salvini, whose League party on Thursday formed a populist coalition with the Five Star Movement after months of political uncertainty, condemned the comments, labelling them "shameful and racist", according to Italian media.
A European commission spokeswoman told AFP that "the words attributed to President Juncker on Italy have been taken out of context".
"The absorption of EU funds could be improved (in southern Italy) so that people can feel the results faster on the ground," she said, adding that "the EU will continue to engage with Italy to ensure that help arrives where it is needed most."