Ireland have never lost to Italy in the Six Nations, but Kearney insists that under Jacques Brunel, the Italians are a completely different side, especially with ball in hand.
He said: "Rome is a really difficult place to go. What's been good this year with Italy beating France and going close against England is that it's generated a public consensus that [Italy] aren't a walkover.
"In the past it's always been lose-lose. If you win you expect it and if you lose you get hammered for it. Now no one is under any illusions as to how good [Italy] are. The one difference that stands out for me this year is that they are now really comfortable with the ball.
"They will happily go through 10, 12 or 15 phases and try to keep playing rugby and look for tries. In years gone by they were probably guilty of kicking away stupid balls, trying to play the territory game a little more, taking snatched drop goals.
"They respect the ball a huge amount more now and have realised they can punish teams with tries."