Listeria monocytogenes is a food-borne pathogen responsible for a disease called listeriosis, which is potentially lethal in immunocompromised individuals. This bacterium, first used as a model to study cell-mediated immunity, has emerged over the past 20 years as a paradigm in infection biology, cell biology and fundamental microbiology. In this Review, we highlight recent advances in the understanding of human listeriosis and L. monocytogenes biology. We describe unsuspected modes of hijacking host cell biology, ranging from changes in organelle morphology to direct effects on host transcription via a new class of bacterial effectors called nucleomodulins. We then discuss advances in understanding infection in vivo, including the discovery of tissue-specific virulence factors and the 'arms race' among bacteria competing for a niche in the microbiota. Finally, we describe the complexity of bacterial regulation and physiology, incorporating new insights into the mechanisms of action of a series of riboregulators that are critical for efficient metabolic regulation, antibiotic resistance and interspecies competition.