Probably the best place for you to get started is the BBC websitepages - specifically 'Italian Steps'. This will give you a taste of the language and some good learning tips and you should get an idea of whether you want to take your learning further.
To add a bit of structure to your learning, you might find it helpful to sign up to the BBC 'Italian in 12 weeks' weekly email that you'll find on the above link. You should also find their 'Learning Log' , their 'Pronunciation Guide' and 'Vocabulary List' useful.
About.com has a special section for beginners including introductory topics to help you organise your study
Mango Languages isn't a free course - but you can try out Lesson 1 for free. This lesson will give you lots and lots of practice of some very basic and useful phrases so it's well worth doing - but this website is all about learning for free so if you finish the demo unit, make sure you check out what else is around for free before deciding you would like to sign up for the paid units.
However userful the 'Italian Steps' course is, though, you need an awful lot of repetition, exposure and practice to begin to be able to express yourself in another language. Just think how many months you spent as a baby just listening to your first language before anyone had any series expectations that you would come out with a meaningful sentence. So set yourself reasonable expectations as you learn a foreign language - and try to get as much 'easy listening' practice as you can. This is where the internet and free language 'podcasts' can be really help out.
I suggest you explore some of the suggestions below and find one that suits you. Then use this as your main study 'thread', dipping in and out of the other suggestions to bulk up your exposure to the language and making use of other online tools such as personalised flashcards.
A word or warning, however. In almost all the suggestions below you are first asked to 'register', which is quick and easy. The 'core' part of the course is free - often the audio podcasts - but if you want to get hold of the 'extras', such as transcripts, extra material, grammar practice etc, you are invited to become a 'basic' or 'premium' member. You can learn a language without every signing up for these paid extras. I strongly suggest that, if you are tempted to do so, you make yourself wait until you've used the free material for a reasonable period of time to be sure that it's the best thing for you. Anyway ...
Learn Italian Pod is a very useful audio course which can be used systematically. If you're a beginner, find your way to the first podcast (number 1) of the 'Beginners' section. This might sound obvious, but because the website is presented as a blog, new material appears first and you have to navigate back in time to find the easiest material. The down sides? The two relentlessly cheery presenters love the sounds of their own voices, use too much English and have rather grating prounciation/intonation. But the content is usually excellent: it's topical, offers an insight into Italian life and culture and provides plenty of reassurance and repetition. The podcasts themselves are free.
Italian Pod This is a new site, but it comes from a good stable; . Although as I type it's not yet populated with as much material, it contains fun dialogues, loads of repetition and maintains a good pace. Currently you get a week's free access to the premium subscription material. After that, only the dialogue podcasts are free - but that's all you really need. If you are a beginner, you're called a 'Newbie'. To navigate around, look for a link called 'Channels' which is where you can select the level of the material. This course won't be suitable if you're an absolute beginner; unlike the suggestion above it doesn't attempt to build systemmatically through a series of lessons you need to listen to in order. Instead it provides lots of material pitched at different levels and leaves you to pick your route through.
Learn Italian Podcast is also worth a mention because it is exclusively in Italian - dispensing with the cheeriness and the English chit chat. But used on its own (without the - admittedly very cheap - subscription) you couldn't follow it as a course.
Listening is all very well - probably the key skill when trying to learn a language that you actually want to be able to use. But most people find they need to break language down into smaller chunks, practice short utterances and vocabulary and move at their own pace. So you are very likely to find LiveMocha becomes a central part of your learning.
This new approach to language combines the step-by-step approach of a commercial language course such as Rosetta Stone with the interactive tools of a social-software site such as Facebook. Powerful, very nice interface, good colour scheme, lots of material and it's all free; what's not to like? Currently it's 'in beta' - so at the testing/experimental stage, but there are no ads on it and no fees at all so make the most of it. If you are feeling confident and sociable and would like to try out your language skills on an Italian who wants to learn English, it's easy to make contact too. The social bit isn't compulsary if it doesn't suit you.
Another useful site is 'Oggi e Domani' - a carefully crafted site suitable for absolute beginners through to intermediate level learners.
There's a lot more language on offer than first meets the eye because a lot of the activities are reached via links on the page which open up into new windows. The whole thing looks rather odd - enthusiastic but homespun - but there's massive of useful stuff there.
You will, as ever, need to be philosophical if your correct answers are marked as wrong when you check your answers - it's very hard to predict every correct answer when building a site like this.
RAI, the Italian state broadcasting company, has a wonderful set of functional dialogues with accompanying exercises. You can learn a great deal from dialogues such as these and there are lots of different ways to study: watching the short video clips, reading the dialogue, listening and reading, following the exercises etc.
There are quite a few 'clicks' required before you can get started, though. First go to the website:
Then select your language (Italian). Then click on 'Visita Guidata'. Next you are asked to choose 'lo stile' of your dialogues - either normal photogrphs or cartoons, then you're asked to choose how you want the dialogues to be displayed - according to situation (eg 'Buying Clothes') or by 'linguistic function' or by narrativo' - where the exercises are presented as 'episodes'. Frankly it doesn't matter what you click on, you'll get the same stuff, so don't be put off by these choices. Then finally you get to the good bit: the dialogues.
Click around and see what's there. Don't forget to explore the small icons at the top - the 'pencil' icon, the 'teacher at the board' icon etc. There's lots here.
If you know a few of words/phrases, you can often get your meaning across in a foreign language - even if you're not sure of the grammar that strings them together. If you A course such as LiveMocha helps you to put together a list of flashcards to help you 'drill' key words or phrases. But the tried and tested flashcard method comes more flexibley that the ones integrated into a course.
Now we come to the wonderful Quizlet site. I think this deserves a paragraph to itself:
Learning through situations
Quizlet is a wonderful free website that helps you make, store, use and share online flashcards. It is beautifully constructed and really easy to use. You can tell I'm full of admiration for the man who made this one. You don't have to use it just for languages - anything that works on question & answer is suitable. (My son became an expert at his multimplication tables after one school holiday using quizlet) but the symbols bar (that makes it easy to add accents to languages) is a joy to use. Check it out now. It's free, dead easy to register, generates no spam and improves the quality of your life ...
Below is and example of just one of the activities that Quizlet generates from your chosen vocabulary / phrase list. Drag a beginning of a sentence and drop it onto the most suitable end of a sentence: