The present study was designed to characterize the lycopene extract (LycT) prepared from tomatoes (Lycopersicum esculentum) and then to evaluate its chemopreventive efficacy in N-diethylnitrosamine (NDEA)-induced experimental hepatocarcinogenesis in female Balb/c mice. The extraction of lycopene was carried out using hexane/acetone/ethanol as an extracting medium and then characterized by ultraviolet–visible, nuclear magnetic resonance and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy. Chemopreventive efficacy of characterized LycT in vivo was evaluated in terms of hepatic tumour incidence, multiplicity, burden, hepatosomatic index and animal survival rate. Results indicated that average lycopene content of the tomato was 11.6–14 mg/kg tomato weight. Spectroscopic data confirmed the structural characteristics of lycopene in the extract. In the animal study, reduction in tumour incidence (42.05%), tumour burden (1.39) and tumour multiplicity (3.42) was observed upon LycT pretreatment to NDEA-treated animals. Histopathological analysis unravelled that the increased survival rate in LycT + NDEA-treated animals was due to the delay in the formation of aggressive tumour nodules. These observations indicate that lycopene seems to be an able candidate for chemoprevention in hepatocarcinogenesis resulting from NDEA insults. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.