* Finmeccanica selling AnsaldoEnergia unit
* Three Italian suitors for state-backed FSI fund bid-source
* Shares close up 3.2 percent, outperform weak market
(Adds Passera quote on foreign bidders, Parmalat statement)
MILAN, Oct 2 (Reuters) - Italy's Industry Minister Corrado Passera would prefer an Italian bid for the AnsaldoEnergia unit that Finmeccanica SpA has put on the block to restructure its business, but the priority is to ensure growth in the recession-hit country.
The minister gave his remarks on Tuesday after Germany's Siemens AG , Europe's biggest engineering group, emerged last week as favourite to buy AnsaldoEnergia, whose disposal is vital for the turnaround of Italy's No.2 industrial group.
The possibility of a Siemens bid prompted state-backed Fondo Strategico Italiano (FSI) to send a rival expression of interest for the company, two sources close to the matter said on Monday.
"All remains to be seen. But it's clear that whenever there is a possibility of having Italian businessmen investing in Italy, this is a preferable solution," Passera told reporters on the sidelines of an event.
Passera said, however, that a foreign bid would also be welcome if it ensured employment and growth.
The defence of domestic industrial champions has long been a sensitive issue in Italy, especially since French cheesemaker Lactalis bought food giant Parmalat last year right after French luxury giant LVMH bagged jeweller Bulgari.
Both deals came at a premium to the market but spurred a protectionist defence from the then-government of Silvio Berlusconi, which reacted by allowing state agency Cassa Depositi e Prestiti to invest in private groups through a strategic fund.
The acquisition of Parmalat is still debated today after the group bought Lactalis America in a related-party deal in May.
The move raised analyst concerns it was aimed at freeing part of the cash pile of Parmalat to meet the financing needs of its main shareholder.
Passera, a key minister in the government of moderate Prime Minister Mario Monti, mitigated his remarks by saying he would welcome any bidder with a constructive plan.
"We always need to choose the best investor who brings jobs and investments to Italy," the minister said.
But the discussion prompted Parmalat to respond.
"Parmalat, despite the difficult economic situation, confirms its intention to invest in Italy and abroad to accelerate growth," the group said in a statement.
It said it was available to provide any clarification about its development plans.
The sale of AnsaldoEnergia, a power engineering company with a strong presence in North Africa, could become the first major disposal for Finmeccanica Chairman Giuseppe Orsi, who is under pressure from a corruption probe and has promised to sell assets worth 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) by the end of the year.
An offer from CDP's FSI for the 55 percent Finmeccanica owns in AnsaldoEnergia would be made together with three Italian groups, a trade union source said on Tuesday.
U.S. fund First Reserve owns the remaining 45 percent.
AnsaldoEnergia's top management may back an Italian offer by taking a "symbolic" stake, a person familiar with the situation told Reuters.
Siemens could table an offer of 1.3 billion euros for the Genoa-based company, two bankers familiar with the German conglomerate's strategy said in July.
Shares in Finmeccanica closed up 3.2 percent at 4.01 euros, outperforming a weaker market. ($1 = 0.7731 euros)
($1 = 0.7731 euros)
(Reporting by Sara Rossi and Danilo Masoni; Editing by David Holmes and Dale Hudson)
Keywords: FINMECCANICA ANSALDO/