Italian district small and medium enterprises (SMEs) developed aggressive strategies to extend their sales networks and supply chains abroad. Literature on districts offered alternative explanations about the impacts of internationalization on local manufacturing systems. The authors consider the evolution of Italian districts in the framework of global value chain approach, focusing on the role of leading firms. Based on a survey of 650 Italian SMEs and financial indicators, the paper describes the rise of a new district firm model, the open network, which becomes a key node of global value chains. The paper also analyses the relationships among internationalization, innovation strategies and performance of SMEs.