Fortunately for us, the abject poverty known as Miseria (Misery) that forced people to turn to beans for survival is a thing of the past, and now we can enjoy them for what they are: tasty, nutritious, and healthy, an excellent source of both protein and fiber.
Though Italians grow many kinds of heirloom beans, if you visit a market in summer you're most likely to encounter bins of unshelled cannellini and borlotti. Here we have fresh, unshelled cannellini, whose pods are pale greenish white, and fresh, unshelled borlotti, whose pods are mottled red and white.
If you purchase unshelled beans of this sort (and they are worth it, as they taste much better than dried beans), figure a yield of 50% -- in other words, 2 pounds shelled = 1 pound of beans, and they won't increase in volume as they cook.
What are they like?
Cannellini are small, delicately flavored white beans, and their pods are pale greenish white.
Borlotti are ivory with red streaks, become brown with cooking, and have a more robust flavor some describe as nutty. Their pods are a mottled red.
I have found cannellini in the US, labeled as white kidney beans. Borlotti are instead quite similar to cranberry beans, and indeed large quantities of American dried cranberry beans are labeled borlotti and exported to Italy. Kidney and navy beans are similar to borlotti in flavor, and will work as substitutes.
A few Italian bean recipes:
Pasta e Fagioli, Pasta Fazool
Fagiolata, Piemontese pork & beans
Fagiuoli all'Uccelletto, Tuscan Tomatoey Beans
Fagioli Stufati, Simmered Beans
Fagioli al Fiasco, Beans cooked in a flask
More about Beans and other Italian recipes
Elsewhere on About:
Easy Cassoulet: Beans at Their Best
Boston Baked Beans
Easy Three Bean Salad (Parve)
Rajma (red kidney bean curry)
Senate Bean Soup