This paper analyzes the characteristics of Italian firms involved in global value chains (“intermediate” firms) by using the Bank of Italy survey on industrial companies. Intermediate firms show, on average, worse features than “final” firms: smaller size, lower share of white collars, lower productivity and export propensity. However we observe a strong heterogeneity, depending on the ability (and modalities) to upgrade along the value chains. There are wide differences between upgrading and non-upgrading (marginal) intermediate firms in terms of size, efficiency, human capital endowment and international competitiveness. During the 2008-09 crisis, marginal intermediate firms performed definitely worse; moreover, facing a collapse in world trade, firms that were upgrading by expanding their international linkages were more severely hit than those that were differentiating their internal functions.