Italian records include both church records and civil records. An important thing to remember when searching Italian records is that a woman was always listed in the records by her maiden name.
Catholic church records reside in the parish registers in your ancestor’s town of origin. These records officially began in 1545. The parishes recorded baptisms, marriages, confirmations, and burials, as well as taking occasional church censuses. As some parishes were dissolved over the years, these records were sent to the diocesan archives. Parishes that were once in the Papal States are now part of the Secret Archives in the Vatican–nearly impossible to access.
The civil records of Italy are located in the town archives of your ancestor’s comune (community) of origin. These include vital records, family status records, and residence records. They can be very detailed, and go back to at least 1870 when Italy was united. Other civil records can be found in the state archives, which are located in the capital cities of the provincia (province) in which your ancestor lived. These include marriage annexes (extremely detailed and often including multi-generational information) and military draft registers (mandatory after 1870). Tax rolls go back to the 12th century. Censuses in the state archives cover 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, and 1901.
The online Portale Antenati (Ancestors Portal) located at http://www.antenati.san.beniculturali.it/?lang=en will guide you through a search for your Italian ancestors’ records in the communities in which they lived. First make sure that you indicate English in the upper right corner of the page. (Note that even when English is implemented, some parts of the pages remain in Italian).
On the home page pick whether you want to search for a specific name or “browse the registries” to access the state archives. If you click on the latter, you will have to choose from a list of communities where your ancestors may have lived. Click your way through to view the digitized pages from the record books.
The link to “The Land and the Sources” supplies a list of all cities and towns on the site. When a specific community is chosen from the list, it appears on a map to show its exact location. There also appears a summary of sources where all of the information for that community can be found as well as a direct link to take the user to the town’s state archive pages.
FamilySearch is as close to one-stop shopping as you can get. It has the largest collection of Italian genealogical records in the world, outside of Italy itself. The Italian search page is located at https://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/italian-heritage/. Simply click on the “search for your Italian ancestors” bar and be taken to the databases.
In addition, the FamilySearch catalog has some Italian records not available through the search engine. These are browsable but not searchable and can be found at https://www.familysearch.org/search/catalog.
The FamilySearch WIKI at https://www.familysearch.org/ask/learningViewer/1048 offers several tutorials on how to find Italian records. Learn how to locate the province and the town of origin of your ancestor; how to find immigration and naturalization records; how to research civil records online; how to explore church records online; and how to write to a parish in back Italy for copies of church records.
The National Archives has passenger lists of nearly 900,000 Italian immigrants at https://aad.archives.gov/aad/series-list.jsp?cat=SB301&bc=sb. This is online database is searchable by name. It covers the years 1855 through 1900–primarily arrivals to the port of New York; although the records do include some arrivals in Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. The records could include name, age, town of last residence, destination, gender, occupation, whether literate, country of origin, date, and ship’s name. Not all lists include every item.
Buona fortuna in your search!