Friends since childhood, (from left) Emilio Debartolo, Nick Santos and Mike Jay have opened Hustle Hard Athletics, a new fitness business on Cermak Road in North Riverside. | JACKIE PISANO/Contributor

Lifelong friends Emilio Debartolo, Nick Santos and Mike Jay couldn’t have asked for a better place to grow up than 1980s and ’90s North Riverside and Brookfield.

From fun on the sports fields in their respective hometowns to Riverside-Brookfield High School, the three could think of no better place to end back up as adults. 

Now, more than 20 years after graduating from RBHS, they’ve come full circle with Debartolo and Santos raising families in North Riverside and Jay raising his in Brookfield. 

For the past few years, Debartolo and Santos have had a good taste of passing along their passion for athletics at the local level to their own sons, now both freshmen in high school.

As their sons aged out of youth sports, Debartolo and Santos wanted to find a way to stay involved. So, earlier this year, they obtained personal training certificates and began training their sons and other boys at a Broadview fitness center.

“During the spring and summer, we were training all these kids, and what began as something small blew up into this,” Santos said. 

That ‘this’ is Hustle Hard Fitness, a new business for weightlifting, strength and agility training at 8921 Cermak Road in North Riverside, formerly a lawnmower repair shop for decades. 

Though the building itself is small at 1,100 square feet, the location, visibility, and bare bones, cinder block walls were all ideal to house their business venture. 

“Through the town, we heard the place was for rent, and after getting hold of the owner, he decided to lease out the space to us,” Debartolo said. “The location was perfect, and we put a lot of work into it.”

In addition to installing blue synthetic turf, cleaning and painting the walls, restoring and painting the ceiling beams and installing an up-to-date ventilation system, Debartolo, Santos and Jay purchased workout equipment and this fall began setting up the space for Hustle Hard Athletics’ first fall classes and ribbon opening, which took place Dec. 12.

During the business’ soft opening in late November, over 50 people attended classes, and since then, upwards of 200 people have registered for future classes.

“The greatest thing that we have to offer is our own strengths and abilities,” Santo said. “We love to work both with all-state athletes and the kids who are just looking to get off the couch and come burn some calories.”

Debartolo, Santos and Jay want athletes to feel a sense of accomplishment both on and off the field, building lasting friendships along the way. 

“Overall, the gym is for everyone, but what we wanted to do was make it small so we can have smaller classes,” Debartolo said. “When you have a smaller group, it allows friends to train together in a comfortable environment, and that’s what we’re trying to build here.”

During the warmer months, the owners plan to host larger classes outdoors in the lot adjacent to the building. For now, training is for smaller groups, with youth programs for ages 2-14, young adult programs for ages 14-20 and adult male and adult female group training and open labs. 

Classes run 45 to 60 minutes and, depending on the format, can be purchased in bulk by the month or at a drop-in rate of $15 per class. 

“We wanted to make this affordable for everyone, because training is expensive,” Debartolo said. “Giving that option to parents is key. They might come here a few times and learn some things, and we have no problem emailing kids more information about training. It’s good for us, it’s good for the community.”

Though the owners’ day jobs are outside of fitness — Santos in sales management for a liquor distributor, Debartolo as a manager for Carvana and Jay in corporate restaurant management — their main goal is to make Hustle Hard Athletics a community staple. 

“I want kids to walk past and say, ‘I go there, I train there, those are my guys,’” Santos said. “That’s the type of environment we want to build and make people feel like they belong.”

For more information, visit or follow Hustle Hard Athletics on Facebook and hustlehardnr on Instagram.