IRVING PARK — Things were going well at Pete “The Greek” Letsos’ Brazilian jiu-jitsu gym on Irving Park Road — until the fire.
A neighboring business went up in flames on Oct. 16, and the fire did enough damage to shutter Rio Jiu Jitsu and several other businesses on the block.
Now Letsos is trying to re-open, and he’s hoping for community help by way of a GoFundMe campaign.
“All of the mats, equipment, and even the air in the space were no longer safe or usable,” according to the fundraising page. “Pete has lost everything, and is asking for help to build a new gym for the team.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, people have donated $5,675 toward Letsos’ $30,000 goal.
The money raised will help him move the business into a new space that will be converted into a gym. Had the fire started at his gym, Letsos says his insurance would have covered it. But since the fire started at nearby Churro Waffle, 2845 W. Irving Park Rd., he’s still waiting on the restaurant’s insurance to process the damages.
Messages left with Churro Waffle were not immediately returned.
Letsos opened Rio’s doors at 2841 W. Irving Park Rd. in 2013.
He learned martial arts from his father, and recalls starting his training as soon as he could walk. His specializes in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which he began training in when he was around 14.
“I’m 40 now and Brazilian jiu-jitsu is still one of the fastest growing sports in the world,” he said. “It’s in all the movies now. And when people are learning it and having fun, they have a little light in their eyes, no matter how old they are.”
Rio’s first school was at the corner of Western and Wabansia avenues from about 2007 to 2013, Letsos said.
“It was a little place, about 1,800 square feet,” he said. “And when they put condos there we got pushed out so we moved over to Irving Park in 2013, into a much bigger place with about 5,000 square feet.”
Then came disaster.
That fire that ruined his business was caused by the “spontaneous combustion” of rags at Churro Waffle. The rags had chemicals on them that ignited sometime between the evening of Oct. 16, 2018, and the next morning, fire department spokesperson Larry Langford said.
Five months after the fire, two of the businesses in the strip mall — Rio Jiu Jitsu and Churro Waffle — remain closed. Irving Park Management Co., which manages the strip mall, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Athletico Physical Therapy clinic in the strip mall, which was also damaged and closed for months after the fire, reopened last Tuesday, said Madeline Coe, a spokesperson for Athletico.
Since the fire, Letsos has continued his classes over at Keller’s Martial Arts, 3718 W. Irving Park Rd.
“This has been their home for the past five months. I like helping them, another school,” said Maria Keller, Keller’s owner. “I mean we’ve been here 23 years helping the community. I like helping people, so why wouldn’t we help Pete after the fire.”
While Letsos is appreciative for a temporary space to hold his classes, he’s hoping to reopen Rio in a new home.
“I’ve known him for about 10 years and working with Pete here in Chicago, he’s kind of this gem,” said Nick Kostidis, one of Letsos’ students. “And there’s a community around Rio, the neighborhoods that it’s built up in with the kids and adults. It’s a nice, positive place to come.”
Pauline McKinney’s children have been training with Letsos for about a year and a half. She decided to start taking classes at Rio herself 10 months ago.
“I think the gym reopening would be really awesome for the community again. My kids have found a lot of confidence and they’re having a lot of fun learning,” McKinney. “I mean it was so much fun I decided to start training, so I found a really good group of people to hang out and train with.”
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