The cause of death was complications from bronchitis, according to Italian press reports.
After starting out as an assistant to Luchino Visconti in the late 1940s, Naples-born Rosi kicked off his directorial career at the 1958 Venice Film Festival, where his first feature "La sfida" ("The Challenge"), which delved into the intricacies of the Neapolitan mob, scooped the Special Jury prize.
Rosi's 1962 Berlin Silver Bear winner "Salvatore Giuliano" rigorously reconstructed the perverse criminal power play in postwar Sicily. His "Hands Over the City" took on rapacious real-estate developers and their political cronies in Naples and scooped the 1963 Venice Golden Lion.
Palme d'Or winner "The Mattei Affair" is an investigation of the still-mysterious death of powerful Italian manager Enrico Mattei that digs deep into big oil, capitalism and global economics.
In a 2012 interview with Variety, Rosi cited the influence of both neorealism and American directors Elia Kazan and John Huston on "The Challenge," which is about a small-time Neapolitan hoodlum who challenges the crime syndicate over control of the local vegetable market.
But he also noted that by his third feature, "Salvatore Giuliano," his aesthetic had evolved toward "my own type of linguistic invention within critical realism," he said.
Rosi's signature style in "Giuliano," a meticulously documented investigation into the 1950 assassination of a legendary Sicilian bandit, consists in hardly ever showing the protagonist.
"I always felt an urgency to make a type of cinema that would help understand the reality of things; the reality of politics, of economics, and also of criminal society, which are all closely interconnected," Rosi said. "These links are even worse today, and even more worrying."
In 1979 Rosi won a BAFTA award for best foreign-language film for "Christ Stopped at Eboli," about the exile of anti-fascist intellectual Carlo Levi.
His 1981 "Three Brothers," which portrayed three estranged brothers who return to their southern village after their mother's death, was nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar that year.
In 1984, he directed Placido Domingo in the Golden Globe-nominated adaptation of Georges Bizet's opera "Carmen."
The last film Rosi directed was 1997's "The Truce," based on Holocaust survivor Primo Levi's memoir, and starring John Turturro.
Rosi described "The Truce" in a 2008 interview with Variety as being about "the return to life."
"Moments of joy, of love, of peace; even comic moments. It's about finding the pleasure of being back in the world," he said.
The Berlin International Film Festival honored Rosi in 2008 with a career nod and a Golden Bear for lifetime achievement. In 2012, he was feted with a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement by the Venice Film Festival.
On that occasion Venice topper Alberto Barbera praised Rosi for his "absolute rigor in historic reconstruction, never making any compromises on a political or ethical level, combined with engaging storytelling and splendid visuals."
Rosi, who is survived by his daughter, actress Carolina Rosi, will be honored Monday at a non-religious public service at Rome's Casa del Cinema.