A defensive error saw the ball fall to Roberto Bonisegna who drove through the defence and rifled home from the edge of the box.
An early Italy goal was the worst thing that could have happened to the game as a spectacle with the Azzurri now content to sit on their lead.
They may well have got away with that gameplan too had it not been for the inspirational German sweeper Franz Beckenbauer who drove his side on in their search for an equaliser.
Uwe Seeler came close to bringing the Germans level when he forced Italian goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi into a fine save.
As the match entered injury time Italy must have felt they had done enough. But Germany, who had forced England to extra time in the dying moments of the 1966 final, never gave up.
And three minutes into added time Karl-Heinz Schnellinger hammered home a cross for a deserved equaliser.
Moments later the whistle blew to signal the end of normal time, but whereas the previous 90 minutes was a relatively tedious affair, the next 30 minutes was anything but.
What followed was an extra-time goal feast, with the lead changing hands at an alarming rate.
Gerd Muller swept Germany ahead five minutes in but Tarcisio Burgnich levelled within three minutes.
Just before the interval Luigi Riva, Italy's star forward, crashed home a left-foot shot from outside the box to make it 3-2.
Still the Germans would not lie down.
Muller, the deadliest striker in the tournament, headed home his 10th of the finals to bring it back to 3-3.
But European Footballer of the Year Gianni Rivera delivered the final blow following good work from Boninsegna. At 4-3 Italy were through at last.
It had been a breathtaking end to a match which for so long had never hinted at the drama ahead.