We develop a two-dimensional thermo-mechanical numerical model in which the formation of oceanic crust and serpentinite due to the hydration of the uprising mantle peridotite has been implemented, with the aim of discussing the behaviour of the lithosphere of the Alps and Northern Apennines during the transition from continental rifting to ocean spreading of the Alpine Tethys. The predictions of the model are compared with natural data related to the Permian–Triassic high-temperature – low-pressure (HT-LP) metamorphism affecting the continental lithosphere and data from the Jurassic P–T evolution of the oceanic lithosphere from the Alps and the Northern Apennines. Our analysis indicates that a thinned continental crust, an ocean–continent transition zone and an oceanic lithosphere characterize the final structure of the system in a poor magma rift pre-Alpine configuration. We also find that mantle serpentinization starts before crustal break-up and that denudation occurs before ocean spreading. The mantle denudation starts several million years before the gabbros/basalt formation, generating an ocean–continent transition zone from the passive continental margin to the oceanic lithosphere of size 160–280 km. The comparative analysis shows that the extension of a hot and weak lithosphere, which promotes the development of hyperextended Alpine margins, better agrees with the natural data. Finally, our comparative analysis supports the hypothesis that the lithospheric extension preceding the opening of the Alpine Tethys did not start in a stable continental lithosphere, but developed by recycling part of the old Variscan collisional suture.