Abstract Background COVID-19 has spread all around the world. Italy is one of the worst affected countries in Europe. Although there is a trend of relief, the epidemic situation hasn’t stabilized yet. This study aims to investigate the dynamics of the disease spread in Italy and provide some suggestions on containing the epidemic. Methods We compared Italy’s status at the outbreak stage and control measures with Guangdong Province in China by data observation and analysis. A modified autonomous SEIR model was used to study the COVID-19 epidemic and transmission potential during the early stage of the outbreak in Italy. We also utilized a time-dependent dynamic model to study the future disease dynamics in Italy. The impact of various non-pharmaceutical control measures on epidemic was investigated through uncertainty and sensitivity analyses. Results The comparison of specific measures implemented in the two places and the time when the measures were initiated shows that the initial prevention and control actions in Italy were not sufficiently timely and effective. We estimated parameter values based on available cumulative data and calculated the basic reproduction number to be 4.32 before the national lockdown in Italy. Based on the estimated parameter values, we performed numerical simulations to predict the epidemic trend and evaluate the impact of contact limitation, detection and diagnosis, and individual behavior change due to media coverage on the epidemic. Conclusions Italy was in a severe epidemic status and the control measures were not sufficiently timely and effective in the beginning. Non-pharmaceutical interventions, including contact restrictions and improvement of case recognition, play an important role in containing the COVID-19 epidemic. The effect of individual behavior changes due to media update of the outbreak cannot be ignored. For policy-makers, early and strict blockade measures, fast detection and improving media publicity are key to containing the epidemic.