More than 37,000 - a record for the World Club Challenge in this country - saw the Rhinos build a 20-point advantage with a dazzling attacking effort spearheaded by Danny McGuire.
But four tries in 15 minutes from the resurgent Bulldogs put them under huge pressure after the break and it was not until Kevin Sinfield slotted a drop goal with three minutes left that Leeds made sure of the prize.
"I'm normally pretty calm but it was a bit nerve-wracking at the end," admitted the Leeds coach, Tony Smith. "The message had been sent out that if we had the opportunity [for the single point] we would take it," he said. "It was getting down to the other end that was the problem." The Canterbury coach, Steve Folkes, praised his side's resilience. "Even behind by 20 at half-time we still thought we were in it," he said.
The Rhinos got away with an early blunder when Chev Walker helped Braith Anasta's kick-off into touch, but the Bulldogs lost possession when Reni Maitua knocked on. The Rhinos made the most of that escape with their first attack, winning a penalty when Tony Grimaldi held down Ryan Bayley. McGuire ran at the defence to provide a perfect pass for Walker, who stepped inside Luke Patten to score. Four minutes later, Patten was exposed again, this time by Kevin Sinfield's kick, which he could only deflect into the path of Mark Calderwood for a second Leeds try, again converted by Sinfield.
There was a warning from Canterbury in the shape of a fine fluent attack through countless pairs of hands, but the formidable Sonny Bill Williams was stopped just short of the line.
The skills of Williams earned Canterbury a penalty on the last tackle of a set and it paid off when Hazem El Masri forced the ball down despite Andrew Dunemann's efforts. El Masri converted in the manner expected of one of the world's best kickers.
The Rhinos' lead was stretched again by a quite marvellous try from McGuire who should have started the Tri-Nations final at Elland Road in November, but who was making up for lost time here last night. Barrie McDermott began the attack with a clever off-load and McGuire accelerated away, dummied to Marcus Bai and arced around to score in the corner. The feeling that this was Leeds' night intensified just after the half-hour when the little-seen kicking ability of Calderwood conjured up a try for Willie Poching as the ball bounced back perfectly into his arms.
There was no arguing with the quality of the next Leeds try, the ball flying from hand to hand until Rob Burrow made the decisive, darting run to plant it down and underline their first-half superiority.
The Bulldogs have overcome worse things than a 20-point half-time deficit, however, and they hit back six minutes into the second half through Patten's try.
Any Leeds nerves should have been settled when Richard Mathers scored from McGuire's perfect kick and Jamie Jones-Buchanan pounced on El Masri's mistake to make it a 26-point lead. But two tries from Jamaal Lolesi and one each from El Masri and Grimaldi made it a nail-biting finish, with the cool head of Sinfield the deciding factor as time ran out.
Leeds: Mathers, Calderwood, Walker, Senior, Bai, Sinfield, McGuire, Bailey, Dunemann, Ward, Jones-Buchanan, McKenna, Ellis. Substitutes: Burrow, Lauitiiti, McDermott, Poching.
Canterbury: Patten, El Masri, Lolesi, Tonga, Cutler, Anasta, Hughes, Armit, Perry, Asotasi, Maitua, Williams, Grimaldi. Substitutes: Oliver, Czislowski, Myles, Brideson.
Referee: S Hampstead (Australia).