On 31st January 2020, the Italian cabinet declared a 6-month national emergency after the detection of the first two COVID-19 positive cases in Rome, two Chinese tourists travelling from Wuhan. Between then and the total lockdown introduced on 22nd March 2020 Italy was hit by an unprecedented crisis. In addition to being the first European country to be heavily swept by the COVID-19 pandemic, Italy was the first to introduce stringent lockdown measures. The SARS-CoV-2 outbreak and related COVID-19 pandemic have been the worst public health challenge endured in recent history by Italy. Two months since the beginning of the first wave, the estimated excess deaths in Lombardy, the hardest hit region in the country, reached a peak of more than 23,000 deaths. The extraordinary pressures exerted on the Italian Servizio Sanitario Nazionale (SSN) inevitably leads to questions about its preparedness and the appropriateness and effectiveness of responses implemented at both national and regional levels. The aim of the paper is to critically review the Italian response to the COVID-19 crisis spanning from the first early acute phases of the emergency (March–May 2020) to the relative stability of the epidemiological situation just before the second outbreak in October 2020.