Although the majority of cases of Legionnaires' disease (LD) are caused by Legionella pneumophila, an increasing number of other Legionella species have been reported to cause human disease. There are no clinical presentations unique to LD and hence accurate laboratory tests are required for early diagnosis. Therefore, we designed a real-time PCR assay that targets the 23S-5S rRNA intergenic spacer region (23S-5S PCR) and allows for detection of all Legionella species and discrimination of L. pneumophila from other Legionella species. In total, 271 isolates representing 50 Legionella species were tested and the assay was validated using 39 culture-positive and 110 culture-negative patient specimens collected between 1989 and 2006. PCR-positive results were obtained with all 39 culture-positive samples (100% sensitivity). Specimens that tested positive according to 23S-5S PCR, but were culture-negative, were further analysed by DNA sequencing of the amplicon or the macrophage infectivity potentiator (mip) gene. In addition to L. pneumophila, Legionella longbeachae, Legionella cincinnatiensis and Legionella micdadei were identified in the specimens. The assay showed a 7-log dynamic range displaying a sensitivity of 7.5 CFU/mL or three genome equivalents per reaction. Sixty-one specimens containing viruses or bacteria other than Legionellae were negative according to 23S-5S PCR, demonstrating its specificity. Use of this assay should contribute to the earlier detection of respiratory disease caused by Legionella species, as well as to increased rates of detection.