Italy, who last beat Croatia in 1942 (although Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia from WWII until 1992), took the lead after only 11 minutes when Simone Zaza set up Antonio Candreva to beat Monaco ‘keeper Danijel Subasic with a fine strike from 20 metres out.
But Croatia levelled only four minutes later when Wolfsburg midfielder Ivan Perisic beat a sluggish Gianluigi Buffon down low.
Croatia suffered a blow when Luka Modric hobbled off before the half-hour to be replaced by Inter Milan playmaker Mateo Kovacic.
But the visitors made light of the Real Madrid midfielder’s absence for the remainder of the match that they should have wrapped up in the final 10 minutes only for Perisic to fire a great chance wide of the target.
Croatia remained top of Group H with Italy still in second spot having now failed to beat their rivals in their past seven games.
However the Baltic nation’s fans’ notorious behaviour, and their traditional use of flares during matches was a subject for which Croatia coach Niko Kovac issued an immediate apology.
“I want to say sorry for what happened with our fans,” said Kovac, a former captain of Croatia.
“There are kids in the stadium. This is not football and it’s not a fair image of our country or our people. We’re sorry and disappointed for what happened.”
Italy coach Conte also hit out at the incidents, but admitted the Azzurri’s biggest challenge had been stopping Croatia’s players.
“I think in the end it was the right decision to restart the game, but it didn’t necessarily leave a good image,” said Conte.
“Croatia are strong, they’re well-prepared and have great individual players who play at the top level. They gave us a tough match.
“In the circumstances and in terms of our objectives, I’m happy with our performance.”
In the absence of injured Mario Balotelli, Simone Zaza and Ciro Immobile led Italy’s attack, but the first sniff of goal came from Kovac’s men in the opening minutes after Ivan Ratikic stung Buffon’s palms at the keeper’s near post.
Buffon blocked easily, but the resulting corner forced Buffon out to block at the feet of Perisic before Domagoj Vida fired over from close in.
It was an early warning of Croatia’s potency but Italy were briefly celebrating when Zaza’s cutback set up Candreva just outside the area to fire a fierce drive past the flailing Subasic on 11 minutes.
Four minutes later Perisic was given just a fraction of time on the left flank but used it to drill a shot through three Italy players and under the body of beaten Buffon.
Conte made his first change with Manuel Pasqual, clutching his hip, coming off to give Sampdoria’s Roberto Soriano his first Azzurri cap.
Both Zaza and De Sciglio then spurned half-chances but Croatia finished the half strongest, Andrea Ranocchia forced to clear off the goalline after Buffon was stranded as he came out to clear.
Zaza seized the hosts first chance after the restart but saw Subasic save his low drive.
Buffon was forced to save twice quickly from Kovacic and then Mario Mandzukic’s header from the edge of the box.
Conte replaced Immobile with Stephan El Shaarawy on 50 minutes, prompting a tactical switch that put Croatia in control and left Italy ball-watching for a 10-minute spell that only ended when Rakitic tested Buffon with a first-time shot from 20 metres out.
Kovac added: “We knew Italy would shut up shop at the back, but we didn’t expect them to do it so quickly.”
As whistles rained down from the Italy supporters, Conte replaced Zaza with Southampton striker Graziano Pelle just after the hour, but the real drama unfolded when referee Bjorn Kuipers halted the match for a 10-minute spell when Croatia fans rained flares down onto the pitch.
Both Pelle and El Shaarawy came close for Italy late on but Perisic should have wrapped the match up for Croatia in the closing minutes when he ran down in space on the left only to flash his drive wide of Buffon’s upright- AFP