The men from Johannesburg were out of the blocks at 100km/h at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi and scored five first half tries to take a 35-0 lead into the break, but Zebre didn’t give up and carded three five-pointers and a penalty try in the second half.
The Emirates Lions’ pace at the back set the tone in the first half as Jamba Ulengo rounded off a slick team move by collecting a wonderful pass from flyhalf Jordan Hendrikse to score the historic first try of the new Vodacom URC in the 11th minute, before Burger Odendaal crossed under the posts five minutes later.
Speedster Rabz Maxwane then appeared to have taken the game away from Zebre with two tries, while Jaco Visagie also got in on the action with a try after seizing a loose ball to bulldoze over.
Zebre's bid to gain a foothold in the contest was repeatedly thwarted by momentum-halting turnovers and when Hendrikse added a penalty goal to make it 38-0 to the visitors early in the second half, a massacre was on the cards.
But that kick was the visitors' only points of an enthralling second period in which the hosts launched a spirited response and when Sibusiso Sangweni was sin-binned, Tommaso Boni and Oliviero Fabiani crossed quick succession to set up a grandstand finish.
It wasn’t to be though as the Emirates Lions hung on – despite some manic support from the home fans – to register their first win of the competition.
Zebre 26 (0) – Tries: Carlo Canna, Tommaso Boni, Oliviero Fabiani, Penalty try. Conversions: Canna (2).
Emirates Lions 38 (35) – Tries: Jamba Ulengo, Burger Odendaal, Rabz Maxwane (2), Jaco Visagie. Conversions: Jordan Hendrikse (5). Penalty goal: Hendrikse.