If you're looking a really effective Italian course that is also really great value for money, in my books you can't go past Rocket Italian by Rocket Languages.
You essentially get three courses rolled into one: There's a 33-lesson audio course, which quickly teaches you the important fundamentals of Italian. Then there's a "Language and Culture" course which goes into more depth and helps you become more fluent. And on top of that, there's a whole suite of testing tools to improve your pronunciation, retention and confidence.
The audio course in particular is a lot of fun, and hugely informative. It's not dull, and each lesson is around 20 minutes long — good for learning a bit of Italian on your way to work.
Because the information in Rocket Italian is presented in so many different ways it's suitable for all learning styles, and compared with other Italian courses it offers extremely good value for money.
Great price for what you get. Suitable for all learning styles. Comes with an audio course AND a grammar course, so you don't need to buy them separately. One-time only purchase with free updates for life. Good community.
Only available online. (Digital download and physical versions with free international shipping available.)
Rosetta Stone probably has the biggest advertising budget of any language learning software on the planet, so it's not surprising that it's often the first course people try.
It's based on an "acquisition" model that doesn't explain anything about the rules of Italian: It just presents you with pictures and you choose the right answer.
What makes Rosetta Stone appealing is that you don't have to sit down and purposely learn any grammar. A lot of people HATE grammar, so Rosetta Stone seems like an easy out. There's also the idea that this is how we all learned our mother tongue as children: by watching and figuring out the rules ourselves in context.
Rosetta Stone is fun. You'll learn some vocabulary, and you'll feel like you're making good progress — so it's good for staying motivated and developing good habits with your Italian.
The problem is that there are lots of things in life that cannot be demonstrated by a picture, so you can forget about discussing philosophy over a cappuccino. You'll be limited to things like "the woman drinks a coffee."
Rosetta Stone may give you some usable vocabulary and phrases, but probably not enough to survive on vacation. I consider it a more advanced kind of flash-card software — one that is fun to use in addition to another course that explains what's actually going on.
Fun to use — like a game. Not particularly challenging, so it's easy to stay motivated. Good for visual learners and people who can't stand learning grammar. Possibly suitable for children.
Not particularly effective — will not make you fluent. Expensive for the amount you'll learn. No explanations of conjugations or gender agreement (there's a lot of this in Italian) so you will likely end up making mistakes when speaking. No references to Italian culture — they just use the same photos across all languages.
Pimsleur is another big name in language learning, and their audio courses haven't changed a whole lot over the years.
There are two main ideas behind the Pimsleur courses:
Like Rosetta Stone, you don't get a whole lot of explanation in Pimsleur, although there is an English-speaking narrator who points things out now and again. If you're interested in fluency you might want to get another book or course to go along with your Pimsleur study.
Where Pimsleur really shines is in improving your pronunciation. You spend a so much time repeating words and fragments of words that your pronunciation will be fantastic. You might not learn very many words or phrases... but you'll be able to say them very well.
There are a range of packages and levels, including some cheaper "conversational" packages. Some of these are just the first few lessons from the Level 1 package. Be aware that in recent years Pimsleur has come under fire for some deceptive marketing: Watch out for any "try it for $9.95!" type claims — people have been stung for thousands of dollars. If in doubt, just buy from Amazon.
Lessons are in convenient 30 minute blocks, and are 100% audio so you can listen to them anywhere. Very good for improving your pronunciation (so long as you speak out loud). Also very good for improving retention due to spaced repetition.
Quite dull, and with little explanation. Just repeat, repeat, repeat. Doesn't teach you much about the mechanics of Italian, so if you want to become fluent you will also need a textbook or another course.
Michel Thomas was a Polish polyglot who spoke 10 languages. These lessons are recordings of him tutoring two students. Some of the courses were added to the Michel Thomas range after his death in 2005, so don't actually feature the man himself.
The Michel Thomas method is to start with a basic word or phrase, and gradually add additional words or related words until you have quite a complicated sentence. For instance one of the Italian lessons starts by talking about how Italian and English share many words in common, like "possibly", and after six minutes you're comfortable saying "I'm sorry but it's not possible for me this way".
Along the way Michel Thomas explains important points about grammar and vocabulary and connects it with material you've learned already.
Michel Thomas himself moves at a rapid pace, stacking new material on top of old material. Some people complain that the two students being tutored in the lesson get a quite irritating and slow towards the end as they make obvious mistakes, and that Mr Thomas has quite a thick accent himself which leads to misunderstandings.
Personally I quite enjoy these lessons. If I had to pick an audio course to listen to in the car, it would be either a Michel Thomas course or Rocket Italian. (Or both!)
Interesting to listen to. Things are explained to you as you learn them, so it makes sense. You'll learn to build complex sentences quickly, and adapt them to different situations.
Moves very fast, so can be overwhelming. You might need to listen through several times. Michel Thomas isn't a native Italian speaker, so his pronunciation isn't very authentic. Not very structured — it's hard to know how much you've learned.
In the end, the best Italian course for you is the one that you can stick at without getting distracted or losing motivation. Once you get that initial groundwork of enthusiasm and confidence, THEN you can "fill in the gaps" in your knowledge with something that might be more effective.
But for my money, Rocket Italian is the best value. It's an audio course, grammar course and game-style tests in one package, so it's suitable regardless of how you prefer to learn, and you won't need to purchase any other courses.
If you're wanting a purely audio course, I'd go with Rocket Italian (again) or any Michel Thomas product. I'd choose Michel Thomas over Pimsleur purely because he covers more ground and builds your confidence faster, even if the pronunciation might not be as strong.