The most important part of researching Italian ancestors is finding their place of origin. Until Italy unified in 1861, each region, city-state, and duchy had its own method for record-keeping. Luckily for Italian genealogists, most families traditionally stayed in the same area of Italy for generations so you may only need to become familiar with one region's records.
After discovering the town of origin, the major records you'll be searching for include:
Civil Registration Records
These are records of births, marriages, and deaths. When Napoleon conquered large parts of Italy in 1804, he established civil record-keeping. Napoleonic Era records are kept it each state's archive. After the fall of Napoleon in 1815, most regions stopped civil registrations but some communities continued the registers. From 1815-1865, the creation and location of these civil records will vary from town-to-town. State record-keeping began again in 1866 and these records can be found in the registrar's office of your ancestor's hometown.
In the early 1500s, the Catholic Church began requiring their clergy to keep records of baptisms, marriages, and burials. Some parishes may have begun documenting these rituals centuries before.
Unfortunately, Church records may not always contain a lot of information.
The first Italian census was taken in 1871. Censuses are taken every ten years. From 1871-1901, census information varied from region to region. Most of these records, only list the head of the household. In 1911, censuses began documenting detailed information for every member of the household. Census records are held at the state archives of each province.
Family Status Certificates
These are unique Italian records of family groups that can include information on at least three generations of family members. Certificates list every individual in the household as well as all parents' names, maiden names, and residences of family members who have left the community. They are held in the registrar's office of the family's town of residence. Availability of certificates vary from region to region.