Irish looked on target to record a famous victory when they led 32-31 with two minutes to go but Toby Flood's penalty and a Tom Croft try from the last movement of the game proved heartbreaking for the hosts.
Flood scored 26 points for Leicester with Tom Homer replying with 24 for Irish.
Irish had the first opportunity when Leicester were penalised for dragging down a line-out but Homer was narrowly wide with his 50 metre attempt. However the hosts maintained their bright start and the full-back made no mistake with a 35 metre penalty to give the Irish a fifth minute lead.
Irish should have extended that lead when Joe Ansbro broke through the visitors defence but the centre selfishly held on to the ball, instead of passing and the chance was lost.
The hosts continued to dominate and had another good try-scoring chance but this time Steve Shingler kicked when there was a clear overlap and again the opportunity went begging.
Dan Bowden dropped a neat goal to gain some reward for Irish but the home side were made to pay for their carelessness when Leicester scored the first try after 23 minutes.
Following a succession of five-metre scrums, Flood dummied over for the try but his easy conversion kick was charged down by the onrushing Darren Allinson.
The Leicester pack had a period of dominance which enabled them to score a second try. Flood and Thomas Waldrom made inroads into the Irish defence and Julian Salvi drove over from close range for the try which Flood converted.
Irish hit back with Homer kicking his second penalty before they took the lead in a topsy-turvy first half.
From a line-out 45 metres out, Allinson went straight through the middle to set up a try for the supporting Bryn Evans. Homer converted to give Irish a 16-12 interval advantage.
Flood reduced that lead with a 40-metre penalty early in the second half and when the Irish were a penalised at a scrum, the outside half was again on target with an excellent 50-metre kick.
The lead changed hands once again almost immediately.
Jamie Gibson reclaimed the restart for Homer to spot a gap in the Tigers defence to evade Marcos Ayerza and run 25 metres for the try which the full-back converted.
Croft was introduced in time to see Flood kick his third penalty to make it 23-21 to Irish going into the final quarter but Leicester went ahead when Billy Twelvetrees carved a huge hole in the home defence to send Manu Tuilagi in for the try which Flood converted.
The Tigers suffered a blow when Ben Youngs was helped off with a leg injury but they overcame this setback to increase their score with Flood's fourth penalty.
But three superb 50-metre penalty strikes from Homer appeared to have won the day for Irish but Flood's penalty and Tom Croft's last ditch try broke their hearts.
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